By Jeremy Diamond and Eli Watkins, CNN
Updated: Fri, 06 Apr 2018 12:41:24 GMT
Multiple senior officials at the Environmental Protection Agency were sidelined or demoted after they pushed back on or raised concerns about Administrator Scott Pruitt's pricey travel, office spending and management of the agency, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told CNN.
Pruitt's international travel, frequent trips to his home state of Oklahoma and exorbitant office expenditures have drawn concerns from ethics experts and yielded headlines for months, but two sources familiar with the matter said they could have been avoided had Pruitt heeded the advice of multiple EPA officials -- both career officials and political appointees. Instead, the sources said, the officials who disagreed with Pruitt were iced out, reassigned or demoted.
Kevin Chmielewski, who was one of the longest-serving top advance officials on President Donald Trump's campaign, was stripped of his work phone and ID card and placed on administrative leave, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter said. He had previously served as a deputy chief of staff for operations.
Two career officials were also pushed aside, a source with direct knowledge of the matter said. John Reeder was moved to American University as an "executive in residence" after clashing with Pruitt. His deputy who succeeded him as acting deputy chief of staff, Reginald Allen, was effectively demoted.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox disputed the allegations and said in a statement: "This is a group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned."
Chmielewski and Allen declined to comment. Reeder did not respond to requests for comment.
The three officials had raised concerns about Pruitt's spending with him or his top aides. Two sources familiar with the matter said the actions taken against the employees fit a pattern of Pruitt sidelining officials who disagreed with him in favor of surrounding himself with those who would approve of his decisions.
The New York Times first reported on these actions Thursday afternoon.
Some costly items that were considered but faced pushback included a $100,000-a-month air charter membership, a $70,000 bulletproof desk replacement and a refurbished desk that cost more than $2,000.
Other concerns centered on international trips Pruitt took related to official visits but that involved mostly leisure time, including to Italy and Morocco; the first-class travel he sought for some of his top deputies; the frequency of his travel home to Oklahoma; and spending on furnishings for his office, among other issues.
The concerns add to a growing list of ethics issues that have swirled around Pruitt, raising further questions about his future as head of the EPA, where his deregulatory actions have pleased Trump. Top White House officials have grown frustrated with Pruitt, but while White House chief of staff John Kelly advocated for his firing, Trump has so far continued to back Pruitt.
Top officials at the EPA initially demanded Chmielewski's resignation but did not fire him, instead placing him on unpaid administrative leave, an uncertain limbo. He was placed on leave after he returned from a trip to Japan with Vice President Mike Pence, where he filled in as an advance official.
While Pruitt has suggested he has faced criticism for his actions because Democrats are seeking to undermine him, the friction between him and Chmielewski suggests a broader concern. Chmielewski formed a personal bond with Trump during the 2016 campaign as one of his senior advance officials, helping to set up the rallies that drew massive crowds Trump reveled in.
When Trump held a rally in Chmielewski's hometown, he asked him to join him onstage and called him a "star."
In addition, CNN's Rene Marsh has confirmed that Special Agent Eric Weese, who worked on Pruitt's protection team, was demoted when he refused to drive with lights and sirens blaring through the streets of Washington, according to three sources with knowledge of the situation.
Pruitt has come under increasing fire as reports steadily uncover extensive spending on travel and other potentially major ethical lapses, including an agreement to rent a room in Washington for only $50 a night from a lobbyist couple whose firm lobbies the EPA.
Trump on Thursday said he still had confidence in Pruitt, and CNN reported Thursday that as recently as this week, the President floated having Pruitt replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Samantha Dravis, a top aide to Pruitt at the EPA, said earlier Thursday that she was resigning.