Reporter On New Email Dump That Reveals Secret Inner Workings Of The EPA

May 9, 2018
Originally published on May 11, 2018 11:55 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Eric Lipton, spent the weekend reading documents released through the Freedom of Information Act about Scott Pruitt and the Environmental Protection Agency which he heads. Among the things Lipton learned about were the extraordinary efforts by Pruitt's team to shield him from scrutiny from the public and the media. Despite this attempt at secrecy, Pruitt is now facing at least 11 investigations, including ones pertaining to his excessive spending on things like first-class travel, security measures and office furnishings, and the frequent trips he's taken to his home in Oklahoma, all at taxpayer expense. One of the more controversial expenses was the $43,000 Pruitt spent on a soundproof booth in his office.

Eric Lipton is an investigative reporter in The New York Times Washington bureau. He's been reporting on the ethical questions surrounding Pruitt and how Pruitt has been rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations. Eric Lipton, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So Scott Pruitt is the subject of 11 investigations, and it seems like the only person supporting him now is President Trump. Why would President Trump want to continue supporting him under the circumstances?

ERIC LIPTON: One after another, Scott Pruitt has gone after the Obama-era regulations intended to clean the nation's air and water and to limit the pace of climate change, and he's been eliminating them - at least, attempting to. And so for Trump, you know, it's hard to think about getting rid of a guy who is really executing on your strategy perhaps more effectively than any other member of the Cabinet.

GROSS: So let's talk about one of your articles from this week, that email suggests that Scott Pruitt's biggest fear is having to answer an honest question. And so his staff has done everything they can to prevent that from happening, to protect him from questions, such as at a scheduled town hall meeting for Iowa ranchers. How did the staff help him avoid having to answer questions at what's supposed to be a town hall meeting?

LIPTON: Well, this has been something that's been apparent to reporters that cover the EPA for a year now where every Friday or so we send in a request to the Agency to ask them what's up this week, where is the administrator going? And, you know, therefore can we be there essentially to observe his activity as he travels around the United States, in some cases around the world? It's part of our job to cover that. They never tell us where he's going.

And, you know, every Friday we send in this email to say, you know, we're trying to do our jobs to cover the Agency. What they do is they take their trips. They require that the participants that are, you know, part of the various events that they're going to have not tell any reporters unless they selectively pick a reporter they think is going to give them good treatment. And the only time that we become aware of it is when Scott Pruitt or his staff sends out tweets, and then they issue a press release with photos taken from the staff. So honestly, it's a bit like propaganda as opposed to actual events that the public has access to.

And so what happened was, just last week, we got a hold of something like 15,000 pages' worth of emails that were sent to his scheduler and his advanced planner. And so for the first time, we had real visibility into who were the people involved with these events, how do they organize them, what type of scripting was done of the questions that were going to be asked and were there attempts by media to cover it and then they were denied access? And basically for the first time, we really saw that all of that was true and that he was going around the country meeting with the oil industry, the gas industry, the coal industry, homebuilders, chemical companies, automakers, each time trying to prevent the press from being there and then often sending out tweets, but doing everything as possible to make it as staged as he could.

GROSS: How did you get access to the emails about his travel agenda?

LIPTON: The Sierra Club, an environmental group, had filed a Freedom of Information request. And when they didn't get the response that they wanted, they filed litigation to demand that the Agency provide the emails that were for his scheduler and his advance person. And so once the Sierra Club got those documents, they shared them with us. And we got a copy of all those documents last week and we spent the weekend reading through them, Lisa Friedman and I, and then writing up a story which ran on Monday morning.

GROSS: OK. So you found out some of his travel schedule. How does he try to protect himself when he's traveling from actually answering any questions that might challenge him?

LIPTON: Well, for example, he was going in August to Nevada, Iowa, to meet with a cattle rancher and to talk about his intention to roll back a Obama-era program that's supposed to protect drinking water supplies. It's called Waters of the U.S. And so Pruitt is in the process of repealing that regulation, and farmers did not like it because it was going to restrict their ability to work some of their land, potentially. So he went to this place where the cattle ranches worked. And it was supposed to be what they call invite-only press, which means you pick certain reporters who you know are friendly, you invite them and you don't tell anyone else.

But the cattle rancher sort of saw it as an opportunity to have what he called the town hall, which was an open event where people could ask questions. There were going to be hundreds of people there. And when the EPA found out that he was planning on having essentially a town hall meeting that was going to be all kinds of questions of Scott Pruitt, they immediately intervened and they sent an email to this cattle rancher named Bill Couser. And they said, (reading) with a crowd of 300 people plus open press, we have to stick with the questions we currently have. My sincere apologies for causing any difficultly, but we cannot do an open Q&A from the crowd.

So basically they were shutting down what was going to be an opportunity for Pruitt to face questions from a crowd that he didn't know. And what they sent him instead - these are the questions they sent him, and this is what these emails brought us, this incredible visibility. Here are some of the questions they sent him they wanted this rancher to ask. Without mentioning it, these were questions that were provided from the EPA. (Reading) What has it been like to work with President Trump?

That was one of the questions. (Reading) How do you define true environmentalism, and do you have an update on the Waters of the U.S. rule?

So those are the questions they wanted him to ask, which are perfect setups for Pruitt to go on his kind of standard talking points. And that's exactly what happened because there was a video taken of the event, and we were able to see that some of the questions that are in this email were actually asked by the rancher.

GROSS: You write about how Pruitt was scheduled to give a speech to the National Association of Home Builders, a speech that was going to be closed to the public. And a memo from somebody in the association said, 16 friendly industry leaders will be invited to attend, and that Gerald Howard, the association's top executive, will, quote, "moderate Q&A on industry issues, set forth in advance and possibly from the audience, who are all industry-friendly and supportive of Mr. Pruitt and his efforts." Just the references to industry-friendly in that imply to me that the goal is to - that Pruitt's interests are to be industry-friendly. He's supposed to be regulating industry. But industry is assuring him that these people are industry-friendly, therefore friendly to Pruitt.

LIPTON: He believes - and, you know, listening to, actually, some of his remarks as he's gone around the country to different places is, he believes that it's a religious belief that, you know, that God has given us these resources and we should exploit them, essentially, what's in the earth - the coal, the oil, the gas. And he also believes that, he says, we can have our cake and eat it, too. Literally, that was a line in one of the emails that we found which he said to electric utility companies, that we can essentially dig the coal up from the ground or take the oil and the gas, and we can protect the environment. And he thinks that. And so he sees himself as both a proponent of, you know, oil and gas and coal and homebuilding and agricultural uses, and as someone that is regulating them. Traditionally, the EPA is simply the regulator, not the promoter. But he sees himself as both the promoter and the regulator.

GROSS: Scott Pruitt has spent a lot of money on protecting himself and on protecting his secrecy. And you've been reporting on this, as well. So let's start with the soundproof booth that he had built in his office at a cost of $43,000. Who was he trying to protect his communication from?

LIPTON: What we heard from some of the people that worked with him when he first came to the Agency that he was actually worried that maybe there'd been bugs planted in his office by perhaps, you know, critics of him from within the Agency itself, or from the people that had left the Obama administration and that people were going to be spying on him and trying to expose his communications. Now, I mean, what we know is that he communicates most of his time that he spends looking at his schedule, which has been public as a result of a lawsuit that The New York Times filed against Pruitt in which we got a copy of his schedule after his events are complete. And other groups filed similar lawsuits.

Most of his time is spent meeting with oil companies, gas companies, coal companies, you know, chemical companies, you know, agricultural players. And so he's having conversations with them, you know, almost every day as they talk about the regulations that they want rolled back, and then Pruitt is executing on those rollbacks one after the other. So I don't know if he doesn't want people to be listening to those conversations, but he seems to feel the need to have, you know, a place to speak confidentially without the possibility in any world that someone could be listening to him.

GROSS: There are a couple of secure places within the EPA that he could have these kind of secure conversations without concern that he will be overheard or bugged. Right?

LIPTON: There are at least two other special areas within the agency's offices there off of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington that are called SCIFs, which are essentially secure zones where you can have classified conversations. They're about five minutes away from his office. But he wanted his own space within his own office. And it started as a request where he apparently got a phone call which he felt needed to be confidential. And he felt as if he did not have a space to have that confidential call. And he asked his staff to look into creating a place where he could have confidential conversations. And it ballooned from there.

And Nino Perrotta, who was his head of security who has been associated with a lot of the excessive spending in terms of - including pursuing the first-class flights that Pruitt took, Nino turned this into a massive project against the - you know, even though there was opposition from others within the agency saying this is getting out of control, we already have two SCIFs. He does not need a $43,000 soundproof booth right there in his office.

GROSS: Was it built?

LIPTON: It was built, yes.

GROSS: Do you think it's a little paranoid for him to want this kind of security in his office?

LIPTON: I think that basically, from what I've seen in terms of looking at Nino Perrotta who Pruitt made the head of his security in March of 2017, replacing a guy who had served in the Obama administration, Eric Weese, as the head of security, that Nino and Pruitt - Pruitt came in with a certain paranoia that people were looking to attack him, to criticize him and maybe even hurt him. And Nino Perrotta really fed on...

GROSS: Physically hurt him.

LIPTON: Physically, yes. And Nino Perrotta really fed on that paranoia and really - you know, depending on your perspective - I mean, really ran with it. Just Monday, we got a copy of a letter that was signed in May by Nino Perrotta, which authorized his use of first-class travel when going around the United States or around the world. And this is the explanation he gave as to why Scott Pruitt deserved only first-class travel.

(Reading) We have observed an increasing awareness and at times lashing out from passengers which occurs when the administrator is seated in coach. Therefore, we believe the continued use of coach seats for the administrator would endanger his life.

So basically, because people recognized Scott Pruitt when he got onto planes and he went back into economy seats and they pestered him, which definitely did occur because he's, you know, drawn a lot of animosity, his head of security decided he should only fly in first class - away from people that might pester him - and that he decided that this represented an actual threat to his life, which is sort of hard to understand how someone pestering a guy on a plane represents a threat to his life, and therefore he needs to fly only first class.

So that was in May of 2017. And that began the process where Pruitt, from that point forward, was only taking first-class flights. I mean, he spent $16,000 just to fly round trip to Rome when he was going there to visit Italy. And that was just his flight. And there was all these other people. There was another aide that sat with him in first class. And the whole trip cost something like $100,000 for him to go to Rome. During most of the time he was there, he was actually doing tourist-type things as opposed to doing formal meetings from the schedule that we got, actually again from Freedom of Information process.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton. He's an investigative journalist in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. And he is reporting, more or less full time lately, on Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. There's currently 11 investigations into Scott Pruitt.

So we were talking about his former head of security who resigned just a couple of weeks ago, Nino Perrotta. And his - Pruitt's security detail has been very controversial. He has a very large security team that follows him around day and night, when he's off duty and on his private time as well. Tell us about the security detail.

LIPTON: Before September 11, the EPA administrator never had a full-time security detail at all. After September 11, it was considered normal practice for Cabinet members to have a detail that would protect them, potentially, against any threat. So the security detail, typically, was approximately five people. They would go point to point, it was called, which means that they would help the person get to an appointment and then drop them - leave them there and then pick them up. They would bring them home at night and then be there in the morning. But they were not there 24 hours a day.

When Pruitt arrived, a team of five to seven people turned into a team of 20 people. And all of a sudden, they had to, you know, staff up. And most of those people, in fact, came from the criminal investigations unit at the EPA, which was supposed to be tracking down people who were doing criminal violations damaging the environment. But they were shifted into providing 24 hour security for Scott Pruitt.

And that meant any time he traveled, he was traveling with this security team, which meant additional hotel costs and, you know, associated costs. And so suddenly, the EPA is spending - you know, at the same time as the Trump administration and Pruitt are trying to cut back staffing, they dramatically increase the expenditures for security.

GROSS: Perrotta, the head of security for Pruitt, also refused to have Pruitt stay at hotels recommended by the U.S. Embassy. And instead, he stayed at more expensive hotels that actually had lower security. And then he brought his own private security with him at taxpayer expense. Is that unprecedented?

LIPTON: I wouldn't say unprecedented. But it reflects a certain demand that apparently Pruitt has placed on the EPA since he's been there, which is, you know, for the restaurants, the hotels, the first-class travel. He has this certain expectation of a level - you know, in fact, one of his - the former - the deputy chief of staff to EPA, who has since left and Pruitt has said is a disgruntled employee - but he said he left because his actions questioning the expenditures were subjecting him to criticism. But he said that Pruitt essentially thought almost as if he was a president, that he was deserving of treatment like he was a president of the United States.

GROSS: Pruitt's security concerns extended to wanting bulletproof furniture and some bulletproofing in his car. What did he want?

GROSS: He wanted a bulletproof desk at the entrance to his office. And he also requested, according to members of security detail, a bulletproof SUV, which again were, I mean, the kind of protections that no one had ever contemplated for the EPA. I mean, you can't get into the EPA headquarters unless you pass through security and, you know, metal detectors. So - but he wanted a bulletproof desk at the entrance to his office - not his own desk - that would essentially protect the security guard who sat at this entrance and protected him. And so those were not approved. Neither of those were actually approved. But as I said, I think that Nino Perrotta really fed this paranoia that Pruitt had and facilitated it. And it helped, I think, lead to Perrotta's rise to the head of the security detail and Eric Weese's replacement because Perrotta was willing to kind of answer just as Pruitt wanted. And Perrotta now is under investigation himself, and he has resigned and left the agency.

GROSS: Has Pruitt had an unprecedented number of death threats against him?

LIPTON: Just Monday, we got a copy of an internal EPA document which shows that since September of 2017, the administrator has been subject of 10 threats, which is somewhat more than Gina McCarthy, who was Obama's administrator, had when she was there at the agency. But when you look at the actual threats - and in this document that we got on Monday - again, through the Freedom of Information Act - it showed the type of threats that Pruitt was actually receiving. And most of them, essentially, are people who are sounding off on Twitter, saying, you know, sometimes threatening things, but like, you know, you should drink this substance that could hurt you, or I want to get you, or someone marked up a Newsweek magazine in a derogatory way and hung it in an elevator.

And the inspector general at the agency then went ahead and investigated these threats, which were considered threats. And in most cases, if they actually found who actually did the threat, prosecutors refused to take them up because they essentially concluded that they were people expressing their free speech rights and that they were not threats and that they had no intentions of actually hurting Scott Pruitt, but they were just frustrated with his policies.

GROSS: So Scott Pruitt's former head of security, who resigned under pressure a couple of weeks ago, Nino Perrotta - he used to work with the Secret Service. He also worked with American Media Inc., which owns the tabloid the National Enquirer. And the National - the head of the National Enquirer - the head of American Media Inc. - is close with President Trump, and the National Enquirer has been part of the whole catch-and-kill approach to keeping some Trump scandals quiet. So what was the relationship between Pruitt's head of security and AMI, American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer and the head of whom is friends with President Trump?

LIPTON: This was a really weird one when we first heard about it. We knew that Nino Perrotta had an outside consulting firm called Sequoia in which he was doing security consulting at the same time that he was there at the EPA on the Pruitt security detail. And already, that was very odd because a federal employee, you're not supposed to be doing things that could present a conflict of interest to your work serving the federal government and serving the public. And - but when we began to look into what Sequoia was actually doing, we heard from some sources that among his clients was American Media and the National Enquirer. And we have heard some things about the specific work he was doing for National Enquirer, but what Nino has told us is that it was essentially security sweeps. And - but there are still other things that we wonder if he was doing for them.

But the fact that he was working for the National Enquirer and American Media in the - at the end of 2016 at the same time as he was protecting Gina McCarthy, and the National Enquirer was associated with, you know, endorsing Trump and trying to hurt Hillary Clinton's election efforts - while he was protecting, you know, the Obama administration's head of the EPA, you know, it creates an odd environment, I think, at a minimum. And when Scott Pruitt was asked about this work that Nino was doing when he was testifying a few weeks ago before the House, Scott Pruitt said he was unaware that Nino was doing this and that they were looking into it and shortly after that, you know, announced that he was resigning early - he was retiring early and leaving the agency.

GROSS: My guest is Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter in The New York Times' Washington bureau. After a break, we'll talk more about the controversies surrounding Scott Pruitt. And Justin Chang will review the new movie thriller "Beast." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA'S "LEMBRANCA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the questions surrounding his professional ethics and his use of taxpayer dollars for personal benefit. My guest, Eric Lipton, is an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times who has been investigating these issues, drawing on thousands of documents released through the Freedom of Information Act. Lipton has also been reporting on how Pruitt has been rolling back many Obama-era environmental regulations.

Eric, we've been covering some of the questions and scandals surrounding Scott Pruitt, but there's 11 investigations currently into Scott Pruitt's behavior at the EPA, so let's pull back for a second. Maybe you could give us some of the bullet points of questions, potential scandals that we haven't covered yet.

LIPTON: Sure. It's just really sort of an incredible list, and it really has your - our heads spinning almost every day to try to keep up with it. But just to go through it quickly, the topics are the travel expenses when he travels to Morocco and Italy; the meetings with industry officials, including the National Mining Association; the excessive spending on security, including first-class flights; the office upgrades, including the soundproof booth; the pay raises for aides that was not authorized by the White House; a $50-a-night condo that he rented from a lobbyist who was lobbying the agency and lobbying him personally at the same time that he was living in the condo; the actions he took relative to the science advisory boards; and also having undisclosed email addresses that perhaps were not checked for FOIA responses at the time that reporters asked for emails. And then he had other emails that were perhaps not checked for FOIA responses. Each of those things are being investigated by separate investigators, you know, right now. And it's incredible to think that that many things are going on in a one-year period involving one member of the Cabinet.

GROSS: I get concerned that we're spending so much time having to investigate the president and his team, that there's so much energy being spent on that that could be going into other things. I'm not saying it shouldn't be investigated. I'm just saying, like, it's a shame that there's so many things that require so much investigation and that require so many teams of people to do the investigating.

LIPTON: I mean, myself, as a reporter, I would rather write about environmental policy and how it's affecting, you know, the air and the water in the United States. And that's what the EPA is all about. It's trying to remove toxic waste and limit air pollution, limit water pollution. And there's all kinds of things that are happening with environmental policy that Scott Pruitt is doing that I also am writing about. But it's been quite a distraction to be so busy just trying to keep up with the latest investigations and latest mini-scandals that are occurring on an almost daily basis.

GROSS: Yeah, I want to bring up just another thing. This is, like, a small detail. But I - somehow I think it's very revealing. Scott Pruitt wanted to use lights and sirens on his car when he was being driven in his agency vehicle to restaurants and airports. That request was denied. But what do you think that says?

LIPTON: Well again, I mean, it's...

GROSS: And how did you find out about it?

LIPTON: Yeah. I mean, that's how Nino Perrotta became the head of the security detail - because Eric Weese who had served during the Obama administration as the head of security detail in the early parts of the administration refused requests by the administrator to put on the lights and sirens because there are very strict rules as to when you can use them. It creates a safety hazard when you're speeding through traffic.

And what we're told is that he wanted to go to this particular restaurant, Le Diplomate, in Washington, which is an upscale French bistro that he likes to go to. And we have yet another email that we got recently in which one of his staffers says Le Diplomate is his favorite. And they were upset because it was booked one night, and he was supposed to go with an energy lobbyist. And he had to find another restaurant, which was disappointing. But what we know is that he requested lights and sirens to go to something as simple as a French bistro, and Eric Weese protested. And shortly after that, Eric Weese was removed from the security detail, and Nino Perrotta was made the head of it.

And - I mean, it just - it shows - I'm - one of the biggest things that I pull out of all of this is that I've known Scott Pruitt since 2014, when I went to Oklahoma to write about him when he was the attorney general. And I've always thought that Scott Pruitt is a really smart guy. And I don't understand, you know, why he's essentially been so sloppy because there wouldn't be all these investigations if nothing was happening.

I'm not saying that in each of these cases there's wrongdoing. But clearly - I mean, renting a $50-a-night condo from a guy who runs a lobbying firm that's got all kinds of clients that are trying to get things from you - and clearly at a rate that is not a market rate - and then to meet with that same lobbyist, you know, is just - anyone with any intelligence would know that that was a bad thing to do and was going to look bad and was going to end up being investigated. And why he would do those things, I don't understand.

GROSS: Well, you know, that story that you're talking about where Scott Pruitt rented a condo from a lobbyist who had business before the government - before the EPA, there's even more complications to that story because even though the rent was only $50 a night and only on nights when Pruitt was actually using the condo, he fell behind on the rent.

LIPTON: He did. And they had to complain repeatedly. And he not only fell behind on the rent but he wouldn't leave the condo after they wanted him out. And, you know, they had to repeatedly ask him to pay. And it wasn't until, you know, over a month after he moved out that he finally made the last payment. So again, it's inexplicable.

GROSS: They had to change the lock - right? - to keep him out.

LIPTON: Yes. They actually had to change the lock. It's true. And I've spoken with the lobbyist - you know, a spokesman for the lobbyist who told me - confirmed that that's true. How is that possible, a guy as smart as Scott Pruitt that he could be so sloppy? I don't understand it.

GROSS: So in a related story, back when he was - when Pruitt was a legislator in Oklahoma before he became the state attorney general, he bought a home in a transaction that involved two lobbyists with business before the state of Oklahoma. What happened there?

LIPTON: So it was 15 years ago. Scott Pruitt, when he was in the state Senate of Oklahoma, before he'd become the attorney general - he was not living in Oklahoma City where the Capitol is. But he was - then he decided he wanted to have a place to stay. So he bought a home from a lobbyist who essentially was from a precursor to AT&T for $100,000 less than the lobbyist had paid for it a year earlier and at the same time that he was taking actions as a state senator that benefited AT&T.

And it turns out, one of the other tenants in the house, one of the other parties that bought it with him and was essentially his housemate, was a lobbyist who was working workers' compensation issues. And Pruitt, in the state Senate, was taking all these actions serving as essentially one of the leaders in pursuing the agenda of that lobbyist and going after workers' compensation issues. So even in that household alone, there were at least two conflicts that he had that were never disclosed and which we only learned about recently because my two colleagues at The New York Times, Steve Eder and Hiroko wrote a story about it. And now it's public and is now drawing scrutiny.

GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton. He's an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. And he's been covering the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton, an investigative journalist in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, who has been covering Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

I want to ask you about a trip that was planned to Australia - for Scott Pruitt. It's a trip that never happened, but the trip was promoted by Matthew Freedman, who is the head of a consulting firm called Global Impact. And his company was a lobbying company - right? - for foreign governments.

LIPTON: He's not a registered lobbyist. He had been a registered lobbyist some time ago, but he now serves, essentially, as a consultant to major corporations that are trying to do business overseas.

GROSS: OK, but Freedman had previously worked with Paul Manafort...

LIPTON: Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: ...And Paul Manafort's political consulting and lobbying firm.

LIPTON: Yes.

GROSS: And in the 1980s, he helped Manafort when Manafort's client was the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. When I saw Manafort's name in one of your stories, I was wondering, what's the significance of him being connected to Freedman who was setting up a trip for Pruitt?

LIPTON: For us, it's another one of these extraordinary tangents that we've gone on in writing about Scott Pruitt, that - now we're writing about a guy who had been in the Trump administration - this is Michael (ph) Freedman - had been kicked out of the White House transition because he was using his corporate email and appeared to be promoting his own business interests while he was working in the transition and who also had this history where he'd worked with Paul Manafort, you know, quite a number of years ago on quite - on interesting clients, such as Marcos in the Philippines.

And so what Freedman was doing was trying to help Pruitt arrange a trip to Australia. And Pruitt came in and essentially made clear that he wanted to travel to spots around the world. He was going to go to Israel. He was going to go to China. He ended up going to Morocco. He was going to go to Australia. He went to Italy. But as his own staffers told us, he essentially was like, find me things to do on these trips. And so Michael Freedman was one of those guys who...

GROSS: To justify them?

LIPTON: Yes. Michael Freedman was one of those guys who was finding him things to do. And the emails that we've received, again, through open records requests - Freedom of Information; thank you so much that that law exists - shows us the - I mean, Freedman was coming back to them because he represents all these corporations in Australia. He knows lots of government officials there. He was saying you could meet with this Cabinet member, that Cabinet member in Australia. You could travel to this place, and, you know, it's a beautiful place. These restaurants - he was recommending all these things that Pruitt could do on this trip and creating his itinerary. It ended up the trip did not take place because a hurricane hit. And Pruitt had to focus on actually - you know, environmental protection issues that emerged out of the hurricane in the United States. And so the trip was canceled, but two staffers did advance work. And they spent something like $75,000 flying to Australia in planning for this trip, even though it didn't - ended up not happening.

GROSS: And it was a trip that really had no EPA function. They were just trying to drum up reasons for a trip to Australia.

LIPTON: They were searching for reasons. You could see it in the emails themselves. They were trying - they were searching for justification for the trip. And yeah, but the trip was more - it was a premise that they then tried to find a reason to justify.

GROSS: Let's look at a trip Scott Pruitt took to Italy last June. What was the official business, if any, he was supposed to be doing there, and what did he actually do when he got there?

LIPTON: I actually have in front of me here a copy of his agenda from that trip, which was June 8 through June 10 of 2017. And we just got this full agenda last week through the Freedom of Information Act. And so what it shows you when you look at it is that while he spent just on the airfare alone $16,000 - and The Washington Post has added up numbers. I haven't actually done this myself - to say that they think that the trip costs about $100,000. But what the agenda shows you is that most of the time that he was in Italy on the ground, he was actually sightseeing. He visited the Vatican Library. He visited the palace for a whole afternoon. Another part of the - he went to an underground area in the Vatican, which is very hard to get a tour of. He had dinner at La Terrazza - at a restaurant at the Hotel Eden, which is one of the most expensive restaurants in Rome. He had dinner at another restaurant called Al Ceppo.

He had that dinner with Leonard Leo who is the head of the Federalist Society, which is a group that's working with other anti-regulatory groups to try to get reductions in Obama-era regulations and get judges appointed to federal courts. He had dinner there at Al Ceppo with Leonard Leo, and Leonard Leo paid for that dinner. And only after The New York Times asked about whether or not Leonard Leo paid for that dinner - because we'd heard that he had - did the agency tell us that Pruitt had reimbursed Leonard Leo for that dinner. And so, I mean, again, what the agenda tells us from that trip is that most of the time, he was sightseeing. And then among the meetings he actually had - as I literally sit here and page through it - was one meeting that he had is - he met with a bunch of executives from major United States chemical companies, like Chemours and DuPont and 3M. But these are the Italian executives of their affiliates in Italy. He had a roundtable with business leaders on environmental innovation at the Embassy of the United States in Rome. And then he also met with the charge d'affaires at the Embassy of the United States, and he met with some officials from the Vatican. But for the most part, he was sightseeing.

GROSS: Is it typical to meet with foreign officials like that if you're the head of the EPA?

LIPTON: I mean, you know, Gina McCarthy went to Italy for the G7 meeting and met with foreign officials. So it's not unusual for the EPA administrator to make foreign trips when there are meetings of the heads of environmental agencies from across the world. But in this case, we're not seeing in his agenda, you know, those kinds of meetings to discuss, you know, for example, how the world's leaders are trying to, you know, kind of set up changes in environmental policy so that they can effectively challenge a air pollution or water pollution problem. In this case, I mean, the one really substantive meeting that he had was with the executives - it looks like - from these chemical companies - which, again, is not surprising looking at Pruitt's schedule when he's in Washington because most of the time is spent meeting with oil and gas, coal, chemical, farming companies as opposed to meeting with, you know, leaders of different concerns about impacts that are occurring on the environment.

GROSS: Before Scott Pruitt even came to the Environmental Protection Agency - when he was attorney general in the state of Oklahoma, he sued the EPA 14 times. What did he sue over?

LIPTON: It's pretty incredible. You know, again, I was writing about Scott Pruitt back in that period. And if you go through the 14 lawsuits - which I have each of them individually. Basically one after another, the policies that he challenged the federal government on, he now - you know, he went from suing the agency over these same policies to being in charge and rolling back the exact same rules that he sued over.

So he was asked during his confirmation hearing, isn't it going to be a conflict of interest if you were litigating against the agency - and essentially on one side of the table challenging these rules - to suddenly become the head of the agency and then to be repealing the same rules that - essentially, your law suits are still in court. Your name's no longer on those lawsuits because you're no longer attorney general of Oklahoma, but you initiated that litigation. Isn't that a conflict of interest for you then to go and become the king and to roll back that same rule? He said, I will not participate in the litigation because that would represent a conflict of interest, but I still can participate in the policy. So one after another, he's been going and essentially repealing the same measures that he's sued over. So his litigation that he initiated is still pending in the federal courts because it takes a number of years for these things to work their way through. And at the same time, he's - one after another is repeating the same rules.

GROSS: I guess we shouldn't be surprised because that's probably why he was appointed. It's not like it was a secret that he'd sued the EPA so many times.

LIPTON: That is why he was appointed. He was he was literally nicknamed the tip of the spear in terms of going after the Obama regulatory agenda. And he became a champion among conservatives and anti-regulatory types in the United States, and that's why Trump named him.

GROSS: You started following Scott Pruitt back when he was attorney general of the state of Oklahoma. How did you start following him?

LIPTON: I was writing about state attorneys general and what I perceived as their conflicts of interest as they were taking millions of dollars in contributions from companies that they were investigating - pharmaceutical companies, auto companies and, you know, across the board, food companies. And as I began to investigate the state attorneys general - because at the time, I was writing about lobbying out of Washington - and I saw that the - that corporations were beginning to lobby attorneys general more. I saw that there were a great number of energy companies that were contributing a lot of money as well. And when I began to investigate which attorneys general they were most focused on, I found Scott Pruitt. And it was just a matter of me sort of saying, well, who's the guy who they go to the most to challenge the Obama regulatory rule?

So what Devon Energy, for example - which was an Oklahoma City-based oil and gas company - was doing, it was turning to Scott Pruitt to try to challenge Obama's rules. And they would hand Scott Pruitt drafts of letters that they wanted him to send to Lisa Jackson at the EPA or to the Department of Interior or even to President Obama. And Scott Pruitt took those letters and essentially put them on the Oklahoma attorney general stationery, signed them and sent them in.

And he was - had become, you know, essentially a lobbyist on behalf of the oil and gas companies in Oklahoma at the same time as he was the top law enforcement official. And he was the head of the Republican Attorneys General Association and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from these same companies to help get other Republicans elected as attorneys general. So that was a story that I wrote in 2014, and that's when I first met Scott Pruitt.

GROSS: So just on a more personal note, when you have to spend your weekend going through thousands of emails about Scott Pruitt and the EPA, what's your mixture of feelings? I mean, it's quite a scoop. You've gotten these documents through the Freedom of Information Act. But it's really time consuming, and it's going to eat up your entire weekend.

LIPTON: Yeah. It's personally been very challenging. My wife - I have an office in my house that I use and I work out of a fair amount. And she walked into my office at home at like 10 o'clock at night one evening recently, and I had started working at 8 o'clock in the morning. And I think her words were, it's a sickness that we've gotten.

(LAUGHTER)

LIPTON: And it's gotten pretty bad. And I realize it's gotten bad. And I have three kids, including a newborn daughter who's only a month old. So it's been incredibly challenging. I was up feeding her at 5 o'clock this morning. So it's a lot to juggle, but this is an incredibly important story. I mean, this is - I just - I feel that we are playing a really vital role in helping the public understand what's going on at the EPA and me and my colleagues at The New York Times and other newspapers as well.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank your wife and children for loaning part of you out (laughter) so that you can do your work. I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for your reporting.

LIPTON: Thank you.

GROSS: Eric Lipton is an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. After a break, Justin Chang will review the new movie thriller "Beast." This is FRESH AIR.

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