A month after starting as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt made a recruiting “plea” to top executives at the American Petroleum Institute, a major oil and gas trade group, according to internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed News.
“I understand that Administrator Pruitt met with the API executives last week and he made a plea for candidates to fill some of the regional director positions within the agency,” Kevin Avery, manager of federal government affairs at oil company ConocoPhillips, wrote in a March 27, 2017, email to Samantha Dravis, then a top EPA aide. “One of our employees has expressed interest. He is polishing up his resume. Where does he need to send it?”
On April 4, Avery emailed Dravis back, offering the résumés of an interested ConocoPhillips employee, as well as an oil industry veteran and personal friend of one of the company’s executives. Although neither went to the EPA, the emails give yet another example of the Trump administration offering jobs to industry officials and lobbyists.
For example, J. Steven Hart, the energy lobbyist linked to Pruitt’s former apartment deal in Capitol Hill, provided the agency with recommendations for staff and science advisers last year, the New York Times reported. In another case, Trump donor Doug Deason submitted a list of names to be EPA science advisers, according to Politico.
The new batch of emails, released in a Freedom of Information Act request to the Sierra Club environmental group and shared with BuzzFeed News, show that ConocoPhillips reached out to Pruitt less than a week after the administrator met with API’s board of directors, made up of dozens of oil company CEOs. According to Pruitt’s daily calendar, on March 23, he attended the “American Petroleum Institute’s Executive Committee and Board of Director’s Dinner” at the Trump International Hotel.
The topic of the dinner, according to the calendar entry, was “Environment, regulations and energy policy as well as the administration’s plans on US oil and natural gas development.”
ConocoPhillips’s Avery followed up with the résumés of two people: Brad Thomas and Kim Estes.
Thomas, who according to his LinkedIn profile works at ConocoPhillips in Alaska, “is very knowledgeable on a host of EPA regulations and policies in that region,” Avery wrote. “The other candidate is recommended by our Vice President for State and Federal Government Affairs, John Dabbar. He is a personal friend of Mr. Estes’ and would be willing to give you any additional information you might need.”
“Please advise me as to what steps they need to take next,” Avery wrote.
Estes confirmed to BuzzFeed News that his name was submitted as a possible candidate to lead EPA’s Region 9 office in San Francisco and that he heard about the opportunity from Dabbar. But he said he did not have an in-person interview and did not submit a formal application for the job. Based in California, Estes consults on environmental health, safety issues, and emergency response, such as oil spill responses, with his company the Estes Group LLC.
When told about Pruitt reaching out to the industry for recruits, he said: “I applaud them for at least looking outside the box. I am not in the box at all. I’m somebody different. I’m not a Washington, DC, insider."
ConocoPhillips’s Avery, Dabbar, and Thomas did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
“We are not aware of that ‘recruiting plea’ but EPA has sought a diverse range of individuals to serve in the Agency and help advance President Trump’s agenda of environmental stewardship and regulatory certainty,” an EPA spokesperson told BuzzFeed News by email.
According to Christine Todd Whitman, EPA head under George W. Bush, “It would be highly unusual to go to a specific industry to try to recruit."
“We did not go out and recruit,” Whitman told BuzzFeed News. “There was more applying to us and our sorting through them.” The recommendations largely came from the White House and Congress, she said.
Former EPA regional director Judith Enck was shocked to hear about Pruitt’s recruiting. “I think it’s troubling the head of the EPA is asking the fossil fuel industry for staff recommendations for chief positions,” Enck told BuzzFeed News.
Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director, was also dismayed. "This is Scott Pruitt trying to outsource the job to protect our air and water to the exact people responsible for polluting them,” Brune said in a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News.
Pruitt and his staff are at the center of more than a dozen federal ethics investigations tied to his spending on travel and security, his treatment of staff, and his former housing deal. And the Office of Special Counsel is reportedly reviewing allegations that Pruitt retaliated against his staff, according to Politico. This is on top of probes by the House Oversight Committee, the White House, the Government Accountability Office, and the EPA’s internal watchdog. Amid the growing scrutiny, at least four high-level EPA officials, including Dravis, have resigned.
This story has been updated to include a comment from Christine Todd Whitman, EPA head under George W. Bush.