An aide to Scott Pruitt lost her job this past year, according to a former senior staffer, after objecting that the changes to official calendars could be illegal.
WASHINGTON — Before he resigned Thursday, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was facing new questions about whether aides deleted sensitive information about his meetings from his public schedule and potentially violated the law in doing so.
This past summer one of his senior schedulers, Madeline Morris, was fired by Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff, Kevin Chmielewski, who said he let her go because she was questioning the practice of retroactively deleting meetings from the calendar. Chmielewski has emerged as a harsh critic of Pruitt after a bitter falling out that led to his departure from the agency as well.
Morris, who started work as Pruitt’s scheduler in June 2017, confirmed Wednesday that she was fired after she raised objections about the deletions, which she believed were illegal, although she said Chmielewski did not tell her his reasons for firing her. One case involved the deletion of several of Pruitt’s meetings during a spring 2017 trip to Rome, including one with a controversial cardinal then under investigation for sexual assault.
The EPA acknowledged in a series of legal memos this past year that it did direct an agency scheduler — although it did not name the person — to revise Pruitt’s daily calendar retroactively. The agency said it was doing so to remove errors that had been left in the electronic record after various events were canceled or happened differently than expected.
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Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, dismissed Chmielewski’s criticism as a fabrication by a disgruntled former employee. “Whatever he’s telling you about altering calendars is not correct,” Jackson said.
Morris was called this past July by two agency lawyers, who told her the changes she was making to Pruitt’s schedule might be illegal, according to a person familiar with the conversation. In August, Morris noticed that a number of changes had been made to the record of a trip Pruitt had taken to Italy. Morris questioned the legality of the changes to Chmielewski and Jackson, and a few days later was fired, the person said.
A retroactive deletion of meetings and attendees from a Cabinet official’s public records could violate the Federal Records Act, which requires agencies to maintain and preserve public documents, and a law prohibiting intentional distortion of federal records. In another potential violation of federal law, the EPA continued to pay Morris for six weeks after she was fired from the agency.
Asked to explain Morris’ departure from the EPA and his own email correspondence indicating she was being paid for time not worked, Jackson declined to comment. He also declined to comment on whether Morris was simply being asked to reconcile calendars.
The EPA spokesman and the agency’s general counsel declined to comment.
Morris, whose start date at the EPA was June 18, was an executive scheduler with an annual salary of $90,350. She handled a variety of planning needs for Pruitt, including requests for meetings with executives from Toyota and Chevron.
The account of the calendar deletions and the aftermath is based on interviews with four people who were working at the agency at the time, including Chmielewski and three others who asked not to be identified out of concern for retaliation.
In July 2017, according to Chmielewski, Morris was instructed by him and Jackson to retroactively delete some meetings Pruitt held with lobbyists and replace them with staff meetings in the calendar, which was maintained in Microsoft Outlook. He and other people familiar with the calendar also said Morris was asked not to enter some of Pruitt’s meetings on the official calendar.
Chmielewski cited an August 2017 meeting with billionaire Denver-based businessman Philip Anschutz, a prominent donor to Republican Senate candidates and owner of an energy company regulated by the agency. Pruitt’s calendar for that day does not include the meeting. Anschutz declined to comment and didn’t dispute that the meeting occurred.
After Morris made earlier deletions, the two EPA attorneys — who became aware of the issue after receiving Outlook emails notifying them that their names had been removed from a past meeting — told Morris to stop making deletions to the calendar, according to a person familiar with the call.
About a month later, Morris noticed that a number of meetings had been deleted from a trip Pruitt had taken to Italy, according to Chmielewski. The Rome events removed from the official calendar included a series of visits at the Vatican — including a special tour of the necropolis below St. Peter’s Basilica — and one meeting with Cardinal George Pell, a prominent Vatican leader who was then being investigated on allegations of sexual abuse. (He has denied the allegations.)
Jackson in May told The Times he did not know why Pell’s name was not on Pruitt’s calendar and denied any discussion about removing him. But this past week, Jackson acknowledged to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of the bodies investigating Pruitt’s management practices, that he instructed staff to remove references to Pell from the schedule. According to a committee aide familiar with the interview, Jackson told investigators he ordered Pell’s name to be removed because he considered it a “personal dinner” and because no EPA business was conducted.
About 15 people attended the dinner, at which Pruitt discussed climate change, according to agency emails.
Morris pointed out the changes and the possibility that they were illegal to Chmielewski, he said, and to Jackson. On Aug. 31, a few days after Morris raised these objections, Morris was told it would be her last day.
Chmielewski confirmed the sequence of events and acknowledged that by firing Morris for refusing to modify the calendars, he was, in effect, endorsing the practice. “She refused — and I didn’t blame her — she refused to falsify the schedule,” Chmielewski said, adding, “It was me and Ryan that fired her.”
Asked why Morris was fired, Jackson said, “I don’t really think Maddy would appreciate me talking about the circumstances of her separation from here.”
Personnel records show Morris remained on the payroll through Oct. 14. Paying a federal employee for work not performed is prohibited by federal law. Under the government’s personnel policy, neither political appointees nor employees who work for the federal government for less than 12 months are entitled to severance pay.
Pruitt is facing 13 federal investigations over ethics and other issues, including an inquiry by Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, which is examining Pruitt’s personnel practices and allegations that he may have used his EPA office for political purposes, people with knowledge of the investigation have told The Times.