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CNN Special Report "Pruitt Under Fire: The Battle at the EPA." Aired 9:20-10p ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 21:20   ET



[21:20:13] BERMAN: Tonight embattled EPA Administer Scott Pruitt under scrutiny for another reason, documents uncovered by the New York Times reveal Pruitt dined in pricey restaurant in Italy last year with Vatican officials even though his schedule said he was simply having a private dinner with staff. Among those reportedly with him, a cardinal now charged with child sex abuse in Australia who is a climate change denier. The cardinal denies the criminal charges against him. This trip is one of a dozen of ethic scandals of Pruitt having answer to as he tries to keep his job in the EPA.

In the Roosevelt room today, it was Pruitt siting nearby the President was asked about this.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, do you have confidence today in Mr. Pruitt? Mr. President?

TRUMP: Yes, I do. Thank you.


BERMAN: So up next, CNN Senior Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin has an in-depth look at all of the controversy surrounding this cabinet member, the CNN Special report Pruitt under fire, the battle at the EPA, starts now.

The following is a CNN special report.

TRUMP: We are going to end the EPA intrusion.

New energy revolution. EPA is a disaster. It's killing us. Our plan will end the EPA.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A campaign promise being carried out about this man.

TRUMP: I think that Scott has done a fantastic job. I think he is a fantastic person. I just left coal and energy country. They love Scott Pruitt.

SCOTT PRUITT, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: Let me be very clear, I have nothing to hide.

REP. FRANK PALLONE, (D) NEW JERSEY: You are unfit to hold public office.

GRIFFIN: Some call Scott Pruitt the biggest threat to the environment.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, FORMER EPA ADMINISTRATOR: He is doing great damage to the agency and to human health.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Scott Pruitt is completely accomplishing longtime -- decades long conservative agenda items at the EPA.

GRIFFIN: Now one of the President's top cabinet members surrounded by scandal.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Pruitt is now facing 10 investigations.


Phone booth that resembles the maxwell smart cone of silence $43,000.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can't just go around acting like a big shot.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From first class travel to 24-hour security detail to huge raises (inaudible). Could Pruitt be the next to go?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who is this man running an agency that he has been trying to dismantle for years?

ERIC LIPTON, CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: He had basically simply taken the lobbyist letter, putting on his letter and sent it to the federal government.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nobody gets attacked more than Scott Pruitt, why because Scott is doing what the President hired him to do.

GRIFFIN: A CNN Special Report, Pruitt Under Fire: The Battle at the EPA.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's good to see you here today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in the spotlight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Under fire for how he is spending taxpayer dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The focus on EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.

GRIFFIN: It seems every day there's a new revelation about the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Weeks of allegations about ethical lapses. They're piling up on Scott Pruitt.

GRIFFIN: About his travel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pruitt in the spotlight for his frequent high price flights.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He frequently requested per diem lodging expenses in excess of what the government allowed.

GRIFFIN: His spending.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: $43,000 sound proof booth is questionable decisions.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: He demanded VIP treatment lights and sirens to cut through Washington treatment.

GRIFFIN: All leading to an unprecedented number of investigations against the cabinet member. Nearly a dozen probes from federal agencies and Congress.

WOLF: Like the fox guarding the hen house, that's how critics are describing one of President-elect Donald Trump's latest cabinet picks.

GRIFFIN: Scott Pruitt was in for a fight from the day he was nominated to lead the nation's Environmental Protection Agency. He had a long history of being anti-EPA. In his previous job as Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, trying to reverse Obama era regulations on everything from the clean water rule to the limits on mercury pollution.

GINA MCCARTHY, FORMER EPA ADMINISTRATOR: I have never seen anyone isolate themselves the way that Scott Pruitt has done, from day one.

GRIFFIN: Gina McCarthy was the outgoing EPA administrator.

MCCARTHY: We went through a whole transition period where you want to sit down and explain what's going on in the agency, but he wouldn't even respond to requests that I made to sit down with me to explain what was going on in the agency. His whole transition team isolated themselves in a room. If you only come in with a laundry list of things to do and the only one you have talked to is an industry person, then you are not really fulfilling, I think, the obligation you have to the public.

[21:25:03] GRIFFIN: In his first 15 months in office, Pruitt has attempted to overturn or pulled back at least 65 environmental regulations.

TRUMP: We are going to end the EPA intrusion into your lives.

GRIFFIN: Carrying out Trump's mission, to claw back key rules like provisions in the Clean Air Act, the clean water rule and emissions rules for factories and cars. But even with all the controversy over Pruitt's environmental decisions, it's his alleged ethical lapses that have him under fire.

SHAUB: It's mind boggling how long the list of potential ethics violations are. In my 15 years with the agency, I have never seen anything like it. Not in the Bush administration, not in the Obama administration and not even in this scandal plagued Trump administration. Scott Pruitt is in a class of his own when it comes to bend the rules.

GRIFFIN: Walter Shaub used to run the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. He quit last year after clashing with the Trump administration.

SHAUB: The sheer volume and sheer expense of what he is doing with regard to the travel far exceeds anything anyone has seen. He has a penchant for flying in first class, supposedly for security reasons as though the sheer curtain between the rest of us and the first class people are going to somehow stop and attack. You have got him using travel to get back to Oklahoma. And they did a study of how many days he spent in Oklahoma in one three-month or so period. And it was almost half of the days. He is using government resources to get himself home is what it looks like.

GRIFFIN: Much of the overboard spending is in connection with threats against Pruitt says the EPA, which make a 20 member security detail and first class travel a necessity.

Even the President tweeted, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA.

But according to this letter written by democratic senators, there were no known investigations under way concerning threats to Scott Pruitt by the FBI's joint terrorism task force.

Its first class travel cost taxpayers more than $105,000 in his first year in office. Other questionable travel includes charter and military flight. Members of a house committee cited $200,000 Pruitt spent so far on questionable travel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You didn't answer my question. I asked you if you were going to reimburse the taxpayers for the overage. This includes 10 trips to Oklahoma as well. So are you going to reimburse? What are you going to do with that?

PRUITT: Travel office and the security team determine where I sit on a plane and all trips I've taken with respect to EPA dollars have been through official trips.

GRIFFIN: And then there's a sound proof booth built in Pruitt office with its $43,000 price tag, a violation of federal spending law according to the government Accountability Office.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How often do you use your secret phone booth?

PRUITT: It's for confidential communication. And it's rare.

GRIFFIN: Pruitt got a sweetheart housing deal in Washington, renting rooms for just $50 a night from a lobbyist. He met with a mining company executive and within an hour announced he was reversing environmental protection to allow a mine to be built in a pristine part of Alaska, a decision he had to rescind.

He has met with chemical company representatives then decided not to enforce regulations on potentially toxic chemicals.

He regularly meets with industry reps, rarely with environmentalists and reportedly retaliates against EPA scientists who have called him out.

SHAUB: There's a level at which he is meeting with people and excluding others and taking perks like this discounted condo rental that certainly creates the appearance that EPA is for sale.

GRIFFIN (on camera): And you don't doubt that that is the message Scott Pruitt is basically saying through his actions? Ethics do not apply to me?

SHAUB: I think that's certainly at, and I don't even think it's just simply ethics rules it's a compliance with all of the safeguards and restraints on government officials.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): His security entourage, lavish spending and inability to take responsibility for any of it.

PRUITT: I'm not aware. I was not aware. I was not aware. I was not aware.

GRIFFIN: Means his name keeps surfacing as the next potential candidate to be publically fired by his boss.

SENATOR EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: It's time we issue an eviction notice, change the locks and kick Scott Pruitt out of the EPA.

SHAUB: We're at a point now with Scott Pruitt being investigated by the House, the Senate, the government accountability office, the office of management and budget and inspector general, with that many investigations going on, I simply don't see how in any other time he survives even this long in his job much any longer.

[21:30:08] GRIFFIN (on camera): The mantra of the administration was we're going to drain the swamp.

SHAUB: Well, they brought in one big alligator from Oklahoma.

GRIFFIN: Not everyone agrees.


GRIFFIN: Myron Ebell was on Trump transition team and is a big support of Scott Pruitt.

EBELL: The people who voted for President Trump in the Rust Belt and across rural American really felt that for a number of years the federal government was waging one and on their economic livelihood. And so President Trump said I'm going to undo that and Scott Pruitt is doing a good job implementing that agenda at the EPA.

GRIFFIN (on camera): His personal problems are getting in the way of his management. Do you think he will fulfill the mission that President Trump wants him to?

EBELL: I think as of right today, I think he is in good shape. I think these things have been a distraction. They have weakened him in some ways. I think right now, he is in position to continue implementing the agenda and explaining it to the American people.

GRIFFIN: Coming up, Scott Pruitt's dislike of environmental agencies started back in Oklahoma.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the first things he did actually was to shut down the environmental enforcement division at the Oklahoma attorney general's office.

GRIFFIN: And so did questions about his ethics.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I had no reason to believe that the House had gone down in value during the 14 months we owned the home.


[21:35:14] GRIFFIN: Scott Pruitt was just five years out of law school when he began his political career, as a state senator for Oklahoma.

MARSHA LINDSEY, SBC OKLAHOMA PRESIDENT: So Scott was one of the young up and comers.

GRIFFIN: In 2003, Marsha Lindsey was a lobbyist where SBC, a massive telecommunication company that would soon merge with AT&T.

LINDSEY: You were always were building relationships with any key stake holder, whether the President of the chamber or obviously key elected officials.

GRIFFIN: When Lindsey moved, Scott Pruitt wanted to buy her historic home, about a half mile from the state capital.

LINDSEY: I did get a call from -- I believe Scott and said, we're interested in buying the home. Are you going to sell it?

GRIFFIN: Real estate records show Pruitt and four other investors bought Lindsey's home, according to "The New York Times," which also reported that one of the investors was registered lobbyist Justin Whitefield. Whitefield was pushing for changes to state workers' compensation rules of the time changes Pruitt advocated for. They bought Lindsey's the home at a substantial discount. $100,000 less than she paid a year earlier.

LINDSEY: When we bought the house, it appraised for more than what we paid for it, not a lot, but it appraised for me. So I had no reason to believe that the house had gone down in value. GRIFFIN: The deal was brokered by her relocation company. The $100,000 loss picked up by her employer, SBC.

LINDSEY: Even when I talked to my realtor, he pulled up the history and goes, that's kind of odd. That's all I know about it.

GRIFFIN: Around the same time, SBC was lobbying lawmakers on a range of matters, including a regulatory effort to reopen a decade old bribery case against their company. State records show Pruitt eventually sided with SBC.

LIPTON: The fact that AT&T had matters pending before the state legislature and as a state senator he was going to be asked to vote on those matters, it created an appearance that potentially he was getting a financial benefit from a company that he was then going to need to pass judgment on.

GRIFFIN: There is no evidence Scott Pruitt changed his position on legislative matters related to SBC. During a recent congressional hearing, Pruitt claimed he couldn't remember how much he paid for the home.

PRUITT: It's one-sixth of the purchase prices, I recall.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And so what -- do you remember the amount?

PRUITT: I do not.

GRIFFIN: As state senator, Pruitt made another bold financial move.

LIPTON: Scott Pruitt in 2003 thought of perhaps being a professional baseball player and played baseball in college and was a huge baseball fan. Somehow then moves into minor league baseball in Oklahoma City and he buys into a minor league team.

GRIFFIN: Pruitt bought a 29% stake in the Oklahoma City red hawks. That's $2 million. Critics question how he got the loan on a $38,000 state senator salary.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In 2003, you were an Oklahoma state senator with a state salary of $38,400. Correct?

PRUITT: And also an attorney with a law practice.


GRIFFIN: Pruitt's friend, former banker Albert Kelly approved that loan through SpiritBank. Kelly, the Chief Executive at the time, also approved the loan Pruitt requested for Lindsey's home.

Kelly said in his statement that the loans were all extremely well underwritten and paid as agreed. He would later follow Pruitt to Washington, D.C. Seven years later, the two terms state senator set his sights on a heavier role, state attorney general, Pruitt's number one campaign pledge?

PRUITT: They won. I would file a lawsuit against President Obama.

GRIFFIN: To fight against Washington.

PRUITT: I believe it's important to use the office to hold Washington accountable.

GRIFFIN: And it worked.

PRUITT: One of the first things he did actually was to shut down the environmental enforcement division at the Oklahoma attorney general's office.

GRIFFIN: Pruitt eventually became the head of RAGA, the Republican Attorneys General Association.

LIPTON: It's a essentially a fund-raising group.

GRIFFIN: "New York Times" Reporter Eric Lipton attended a few of RAGA's events.

LIPTON: I saw lobbyists from telecommunications, from oil and gas companies, from casino companies that were there. It's a relationship building opportunity that is based on them writing a check and then having this access.

Pruitt was the chief fund-raiser. He was aggressively raising money from the oil and gas industry.

GRIFFIN: Oil and gas companies were under threat by the Obama EPA. And Pruitt became their biggest champion.

[21:40:03] From clean air standards to water contamination prevention, Pruitt challenged every new EPA measure, ultimately suing the EPA 14 times in partnership with major industry players.

DOUG GIBSON (ph), MILLIONAIRE AND ACTIVIST CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL DONOR FROM TEXAS: The President is not going to fire Scott Pruitt because he's too dump good.

GRIFFIN: Doug Gibson (ph) is millionaire and activist conservative political donor from Texas. And he loves Scott Pruitt.

GIBSON: He is passionate about individual freedom and federalists principals. Those are things that I'm passionate about.

GRIFFIN: They have known each other four years. In that time, he's hosted Pruitt in his suite at Dallas cowboy football games, introduced him to major conservative political organizations and opened doors to wealthy Republicans who believe like him the EPA's policies under Obama were unconstitutional and anti-business. He says Pruitt is doing exactly what he, more importantly the President wants.

TRUMP: Scott, please.

GRIFFIN: Destroy the EPA. GIBSON: The EPA obviously needs to go away. The reality is we have a federalist society. Most power resides at the states. It was a Republican who started the EPA. But it was a huge mistake.

JOHN WALKE, SENIOR ATTORNEY FOR THE N NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL: Some of the Scott Pruitt's biggest financial donors when he was running for political office in Oklahoma were fossil fuel companies.

My name is John Walke.

GRIFFIN: John Walke Senior Attorney for The N Natural Resources Defense Council fought against Pruitt's lawsuits.

WALKE: The fact that state attorneys general partner with fossil fuel companies to sue EPA is not unusual by itself. But the sheer number of cases that Scott Pruitt brought with big corporations representing fossil fuel interests and the degree of interest he had in trying to overturn clean air and clean water protections, that was unusual.

GRIFFIN: When Eric Lipton investigated Pruitt's relationship with the energy industry, he found that lobbyists were actually writing the letters Pruitt sent to the EPA.

LIPTON: He had basically simply taken the lobbyist's letter, put it on his letterhead and sent it to the federal government.

GRIFFIN: Pruitt adamantly denies any wrongdoing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why do you need an outside oil company to draft a letter when you have 250 people working for you?

PRUITT: Senator, as I indicated, that was an effort that was protecting the state's interest and making sure that we made the voices of all Oklahomans heard on an important industry to our state.

GRIFFIN: Pruitt's two campaigns for attorney general are under question because of $65,000 he paid himself, a CNN analysis found. One election watchdog found the reimbursements from the campaigns are recorded so vaguely there's no way to tell if they are legal. A spokesman for Pruitt describes the payments as standard reimbursements.

The ethical concerns in Oklahoma would foreshadow the problems Pruitt created when he arrived in D.C. Pruitt made his friend and former banker Albert Kelly, who in 2016 was banned for life from banking by the FDIC for agreeing to loans without FDIC approval, the head of the super fund cleanup program, task force to address the most toxic and harmful sites across the country. A year later, Kelly would resign amid scrutiny over his multiple loans to Pruitt.

Coming up --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very clear they are trying to take down and muzzle scientists.

GRIFFIN: -- Pruitt's impact on the environment.

GRIFFIN (on camera): You said that Mr. Pruitt knows exactly what he is doing, harming the environment at the behest of industry, and putting the public health at risk. Is that right?



[21:47:34] GRIFFIN: The EPA was created nearly 50 years ago in response to public outcry over air and water. The defining moment was when the filthy Cuyahoga River spontaneously caught fire. In all that time, no one has radically changed the agency as much as Scott Pruitt, who is just 15 months into his term. How would you rate Mr. Pruitt?

RUCKELSHAUS: If you're talking best worst, he is clear on the worst side.

WHITMAN: I would say worst.

MCCARTHY: I would say worst. Given the fact that I don't think he is focused on the mission of the agency. I'm not sure he makes the least.

GRIFFIN: William Ruckelshaus, Christine Todd Whitman and Gina McCarthy all three are former EPA administrator, members of a very small club all had Scott Pruitt jobs reported.

Ruckelshaus started the EPA as the first administrator under President Nixon and returned under President Reagan. Whitman worked under President George W. Bush, Gina McCarthy was the last administrator just before Scott Pruitt appointed by Barack Obama. These former administrators and others CNN has spoken with all agree on one thing, Scott Pruitt is gutting the EPA. That says Myron Ebell is exactly the point. You like Scott Pruitt where he is?

GRIFFIN (on camera): You like Scott Pruitt where he is?

EBELL: Yes. Scott Pruitt is doing a good job at EPA implementing the President's agenda.

GRIFFIN: Myron Ebell is one of Scott Pruitt's top defenders in Washington today. Ebell worked on President Trump's transition team and helped pave the way for what is now happening at the EPA. Scott Pruitt declined to speak to CNN for this project.

GRIFFIN (on camera): And you review the agenda as it relates to EPA is?

EBELL: Well, it's largely undoing the regulatory onslaught perpetrated during the Obama administration not only on global warming but in other areas.

GRIFFIN: Pruitt's policy changes in year one have been striking. He is embarked on more aggressive deregulation, reversals and environmental rollbacks than any other administrator before him. BETSY SOUTHERLAND, FORMER DIRECTOR IN THE EPA'S OFFICE OF WATER: It seemed like he was following a very calculated strategy that had been well laid out far in advance of his actual confirmation.

GRIFFIN: Betsy Southerland is a former Director in the EPA's Office of Water. She retired last year writing a scathing letter about her former boss Pruitt and his approach to standards.

[21:50:07] SOUTHERLAND: What the industry playbook says is, number one, hide your science studies that prove your product is causing health affects. Number two, hire bogus experts who will attack anybody who says there is an impact from your products. Number three, discredit anybody who criticizes. And number four, endless litigation. Pruitt is following every one of those four steps of the playbook.

GRIFFIN: The EPA itself claims to have completed 24 deregulatory actions with 41 more under development. Climate change was at the top of Pruitt's list. Pruitt openly questions the role humans have on global warming and has aggressively brought that skepticism into EPA, removing references on the EPA's websites and documents.

TRUMP: Scott Pruitt who most of you know and respect.

GRIFFIN: Early on, he was one of the loudest voices pushing President Trump to abandon the Paris Climate Accord and he was there when the announcement was made shocking most world leaders.

In October, Pruitt announced a withdrawal from the Clean Power Plan, which most stalled in courts, is designed to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from polluters.

In January this year, Pruitt's EPA sharply weakened the Clean Air Act, withdrawing regulations on major sources of hazardous air pollutants. In January, the EPA also announced it would suspend a part of the Clean Water Act designed to limit pollution and this spring the EPA proposed changes to regulating coal ash waste and announced steps to weaken restriction on auto emissions. The biggest problem according to scientists within the EPA is that Pruitt does not use science in his decision making.

WHITMAN: What really has troubled me probably the most is this disregard for science, this implication that science isn't real. You don't pay attention to it that there's enough uncertainty that you don't want to move forward. And that is just very damaging.

GRIFFIN: From his earliest days in office, Pruitt has met repeatedly with industry representatives and rarely with environmentalists, making key decisions at times shortly after those meetings. Pruitt has hired lobbyists to lead entire operations that used to regulate their industries.

Internal e-mails show Pruitt team goes to great lengths to make sure the EPA director avoids confrontation or opposing thoughts, hiding appearances from the media, even controlling questions from farmers at a public forum in Iowa. We cannot do open Q&A from the crowd one e-mail reads. Listing approved questions for the moderator like, what has it been like to work with President Trump?

The memos detail how anyone interacting with Pruitt is classified as friendly or unfriendly, the unfriendlies, those who challenge his policies, are to be avoided. Prescreened friendlies are welcomed with open arms. CNN has repeatedly been refused access to the administrator. Betsy Southerland says access if reserve for those who need environmental favors.

SOUTHERLAND: So I think he is solely motivated by satisfying his political donors and his political donors are industry and agribusiness.

GRIFFIN (on camera): What's it like to be inside the EPA right now?

SOUTHERLAND: Everyone when I talk to is just basically heartbroken. I mean, they have no possibility of influencing decisions because they're not allowed in the discussions where decisions are made. I see it as fundamental public health and safety protection is what's being lost. They are actually repealing any standards or any federal minimum requirements for public health and safety protection. That's not streamlining. That's actually a demolition.

GRIFFIN: Do you see implementing the policy at the EPA to be destroying the EPA?

EBELL: No. But it's designed to really reform the agency. The last time this --

GRIFFIN: Gut it really?

EBELL: Well, no. I don't think gut it. Look, our nation's environmental statutes are in place. They are being in some sense during the Obama years, the statutes were ignored. We have talked to several former administrators of the EPA, both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats. To a person they cannot believe that this is the person that President Trump picked to be the top environmental cop for the United States.

Well, you know, I have some problems with all of those past administrators, both Republican and Democrat. They felt their mission was to protect the environment. They believe Scott Pruitt's mission is to protect the polluters.

[21:55:01] Well, I think they're wrong about that.

GRIFFIN: Are you concerned about the health of the EPA?

RUCKELSHAUS: Oh, yes. I think yes, if this administration had the time and they certainly have the inclination, they would not be regulation at all of a permit first to anything they were hoping to have. There are some exceptions but in most cases, they side with the polluters. And that's not good for the country. It's not good for the economy. It's not good for democracy. GRIFFIN: The three former administrators say they are worried not only about environmental policy under Pruitt, they fear he is abandoning the agency's very purpose and its mission.

WHITMAN: The mission of EPA is very clear. It's to protect human health and the environment, period, the end. As far as I'm concerned, Scott Pruitt is not following the mission. He is undermining the mission.

MCCARTHY: It's really about kids, it's about the most vulnerable populations and how you establish national standards to protect the health of communities. I have never seen an administrator that spent so little time talking or understanding about the implications of the actions he was taking on the health of the people in this country and beyond.