WASHINGTON — The lobbyist whose wife rented a condo to Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt at $50 a night sought EPA committee posts for a lobbying client, according to a newly released EPA memo.
J. Steven Hart's seeking those appointments from his wife's former tenant, Pruitt, shows "the extent to which the special interests providing him with gifts have sought specific favors from EPA in return," said Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The memo makes for the latest in a monthslong barrage of news reports and federal investigations questioning spending and other actions at Pruitt's EPA. Pruitt's former security chief, whose time with Pruitt saw the EPA administrator provided with round-the-clock security and first-class flights in the name of security, appeared for an hourslong closed-door interview Wednesday with staff on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Pruitt has repeatedly blamed his security staff and other subordinates for questioned spending by his office. Last week, the EPA head told congressional lawmakers that he had no idea staffers had spent $43,000 on a soundproof booth after he asked for a private, secure communications set-up.
His former deputy chief of staff, Kevin Chmielewski, denied that, telling ABC News in a segment aired Wednesday that Pruitt knew the booth would be "on the tune of over $40,000."
The New York Times first reported the new memo from Hart, the lobbyist.
Hart wrote the email Aug. 10 to Ryan Jackson, Pruitt's chief of staff.
"I want to highlight three candidates...who were nominated by our client, Dennis Treacy, the president of the Smithfield Foundation," Hart wrote, suggesting appointments for the three to an EPA science advisory board.
The foundation is an arm of Smithfield Foods Inc. of Virginia, known for its hams. Smithfield Foods paid at least $280,000 in lobbying fees in 2017 to Hart's firm, and Hart was listed by name as representing Smithfield as its lobbyist when he wrote the email, according to federal lobbying records.
Asked if the request represented a conflict of interest for Pruitt, the EPA provided a statement from Jackson that did not address that question directly. The suggestions were among hundreds the EPA received for the board, and the three people suggested by Hart were not appointed to the advisory board, Jackson said in the statement.
Pruitt told Fox News in April that "Mr. Hart has no clients that had business before this agency," but a spokesman for Hart subsequently acknowledged that Hart actually met with Pruitt in his office in July 2017, about one month before Hart's proposed nominations to discuss efforts to preserve the Chesapeake Bay.
Pruitt's assertion had been in response to questions about the propriety of his leasing the condo, at a bargain rate, from Hart's wife.
Pallone, the lawmaker, called the August email "further proof that Administrator Pruitt has consistently misled Congress and the public."
Separately Wednesday, an environmental group released EPA emails it had obtained from a freedom-of-information lawsuit showing a former lobbyist for foreign governments persistently pitching Pruitt aides on a proposed official trip to Australia last summer.
Matthew Freedman, a promoter of U.S.-Australian business ties, framed much of his correspondence touting the trip to EPA staffers like a travelogue: On Sydney's Bondi Beach, he wrote Pruitt aide Millan Hupp, "you can walk as long as you want on a long and winding paved walking trail along the sea..and watch the surfers. I can send some photos if it is useful to visualize. Definitely a memorable experience."
Freedman's emails showed him keeping U.S. diplomats in Australia, typically involved in government trips, at arms' length at the start of his pitching. The charge d'affaire at the U.S. Embassy in Australia would likely have good ideas for the trip, "but I want to wait a bit before I contact him," Freedman wrote.
The emails "expose the fact that corporate lobbyists are orchestrating Pruitt's taxpayer-funded trips," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, which obtained the documents.
Pruitt has drawn fire for costly foreign and domestic travel with staffers, including a multiday journey to Morocco and France in December, for reasons Democratic lawmakers say don't justify the expense.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the Australia trip was organized by the agency, not Freedman, and noted that Hurricane Harvey ultimately forced cancellation of the trip. Freedman, last registered as a representative in the U.S. for foreign governments in the 1990s, was not a registered lobbyist, Wilcox said.