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Pruitt’s security chief goaded spending, employees say

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has had a willing partner in pushing for his massive spending on bodyguards and first-class flights, current and former EPA officials say — the Secret Service veteran who heads his security detail.

Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta played a key role in the investigation into mobster John “Junior” Gotti in the 1990s, and he’s boasted of his exploits with women, firearms and luxury watches in a self-published autobiography. Now he’s running security for the nation’s top environmental regulator like a lavishly funded SWAT team, according to interviews with seven people who have worked with him under both the Trump and Obama administrations.

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The current and former staffers say that rather than acting as a restraint on Pruitt, who came into the agency a year ago demanding round-the-clock bodyguards, Perrotta has instead egged him on — indulging his requests for a 19-person security detail, high-performance SUV, $ 43,000 soundproof booth and bug-sweep of his offices, as well as first-class flights to limit his exposure to potential threats from fellow passengers. Perrotta has even barred all but a select group of agency employees from entering rooms and corridors near Pruitt’s offices, according to Ron Slotkin, a career official who recently retired as director of the EPA’s multimedia office.

Perrotta has also accompanied Pruitt on flights and offered him advice on environmental policy and other agency matters, according to two of the sources.

Slotkin said Perrotta and others around Pruitt strained repeatedly against any restrictions on their activity, including longstanding federal limits on spending and conduct.

“They would object to anything when we said, ‘No, you can’t do that’ or ‘That would be wrong,’” Slotkin said. He added: “We’d say, ‘It’s not a matter of legality, it’s ethics, it’s the way things look.’ But they went out of their way to do something different.”

Now Perrotta’s own ethics are drawing scrutiny from members of Congress looking into Pruitt’s actions. Five Democratic lawmakers alleged in a letter sent to President Donald Trump on Thursday that EPA issued at least one contract to an employee of Perrotta’s private security firm, and that other contracts may have gone to Perrotta’s “friends or associates,” based on allegations from former agency deputy chief of staff Kevin Chmielewski.

Chmielewski, a former Trump campaign aide, has told lawmakers EPA fired him after he refused to retroactively approve first-class travel for one of Pruitt’s closest aides, former agency policy chief Samantha Dravis, according to the letter from Democrats including Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. He also told the lawmakers that Perrotta threatened to go to his home to seize his EPA parking pass — adding that he “didn’t give a f—“ who might be listening to their phone call.

Perrotta did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended EPA’s decisions on Pruitt’s security arrangements, calling them “similar to security protocol across the federal government.” He added that the agency had done similar security sweeps for former President Barack Obama’s two EPA administrators, Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy.

“According to EPA’s Assistant Inspector General, Scott Pruitt has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats against him and security decisions are made by EPA’s Protective Service Detail,” Wilcox said in a statement. “Americans should all agree that members of the President’s cabinet should be kept safe from these violent threats.”

Pruitt’s spending, relationships with industry lobbyists and reputation for excessive secrecy have generated calls for his firing from Democratic lawmakers, some Republicans and even White House staff. But he still has at least a public champion in Trump, who tweeted last weekend that “Scott is doing a great job!”

To the contrary, the current and former agency employees say Pruitt has fostered an atmosphere of chaos, mistrust and disregard for optics — and that Perrotta has been a crucial part of it.

Several said Perrotta’s personality and Pruitt’s expectations are both probably driving EPA’s security spending, adding that other key aides have signed off on the administrator’s expenses either willingly or begrudgingly.

“He’ll do anything to satisfy his boss,” said one departed career staffer.

Perrotta was born to Italian immigrants in New York and has spent his life in law enforcement, including in the Secret Service, where he said he protected presidents and dignitaries and investigated financial and organized crimes, according to “Dual Mission,” the autobiography he self-published in 2016.

In the book, he calls himself “completely misunderstood by most,” including family, friends and coworkers, in large part because of his “high level of energy.” Former and current colleagues have described Perrotta as rigidly loyal but also enthusiastic to push boundaries to get what he wants — an impression his book supports.

He recalls “creatively” finding ways to show probable cause to get warrants, providing financial incentives to police, and making sources of female “friends,” “showering them with gifts that I was easily able to afford.”

Perrotta said he also let women hold his government-issued firearm in romantic situations. “It was, in some ways, like a dangerous, forbidden sex toy to some, and I played right along,” he recalled.

Trey Gowdy is pictured. | AP Photo

He said he liked the finer things, including a Rolex Submariner watch that he wore in his youth. When working for the Secret Service in Bulgaria, he wrote, he dressed “more like a gangster than law enforcement,” clad in square-toed, black biker boots and a black, Italian-made turtleneck sweater with a “.380 Sig” gun tucked underneath.

He joined EPA in 2004. That eventually brought him into Pruitt’s orbit.

Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, had built a reputation in conservative Republican circles for his frequent lawsuits against the EPA’s Obama-era regulations, putting him at odds with much of the agency’s workforce. And his penchant for lavish spending was documented even before he arrived in Washington: An audit in Oklahoma showed that expenses at the attorney general’s office surged during his tenure compared with his predecessor’s, The Intercept reported Thursday.

When Pruitt arrived at EPA after his confirmation in February 2017, his transition team had already made it clear that he expected around-the-clock security, a former agency employee who was there at the time said.

A week after Pruitt’s first day at the agency, top staffers had a meeting on “24/7 security,” according to calendars obtained by the watchdog group American Oversight. Chief of staff Ryan Jackson met for half an hour with security officials including Henry Barnet, the director of the criminal enforcement office where Pruitt’s security detail is housed.

Perrotta was soon promoted to replace a career staffer who had pushed back on the administrator’s desire to use sirens to navigate D.C. traffic. He quickly developed a close relationship with Pruitt.

As head of Pruitt’s security detail, Perrotta has been instrumental in decisions for him to fly only first-class, upgrade to a souped-up SUV and have his office swept for bugs, a former Trump administration official said. Perrotta has also overseen Pruitt’s 19-person crew of bodyguards, which is three times the size of the team that protected McCarthy — and offers 24/7 protection that exceeds what most Cabinet members receive.

“Mr. Pruitt thinks he’s the president of the United States,” said the first former career staffer. “He’s big on image.”

The office sweep for listening devices — which was conducted by a company linked to Perrotta — rankled some career staffers and led to a scuffle between Perrotta and a member of the agency’s homeland security office at a meeting last summer, The New York Times reported Thursday.

Despite EPA’s argument that Pruitt has received a record number of death threats, an internal report from the agency’s Office of Homeland Security suggests that the threats mainly consist of letters and criticism on social media that don’t warrant such blanket protection. (On Tuesday, the agency dismissed a staffer who had signed off on the memo and argued with Perrotta, for what it insists were issues dating back several years.)

But several current and former EPA staffers say they also consider the security fears overblown.

“We never saw any threat, never heard any threat,” said Slotkin, the former multimedia director. “If anything, it came from Pruitt, we would hear him speak about it. But there was no evidence that anybody could even get near him.”

That included many EPA employees: Slotkin said Perrotta cordoned off Pruitt’s suite of offices inside EPA’s headquarters at Federal Triangle, posting security guards to keep out anyone who wasn’t on an approved list. One restricted area was a chandelier-decorated conference room named after environmentalist Rachel Carson where agency employees had previously been allowed to hold events, Slotkin said.

Scott Pruitt is pictured. | Getty Images

“He didn’t want anybody near him,” Slotkin said.

Soon Perrotta was flying with Pruitt and discussing matters that went beyond security, two former employees said.

“It wasn’t uncommon that given travel and Nino’s proximity, he would always weigh in on matters beyond his scope as security, leveraging his institutional knowledge,” one said. “He often would say what he recalled prior administrators doing.”

By the spring of last year, Perrotta was regularly attending travel planning meetings with top political staff, including a March 30 international scheduling discussion and an April 10 talk on international travel, according to EPA records.

He and other security agents were closely involved in planning in May for a trip the following month to Italy, where Pruitt visited the Vatican and then attended G-7 environment meetings in Bologna. Perrotta had lived for two years in Rome on Secret Service assignment, where he made many connections, according to his book.

Wilcox said the security arrangements on the Italy trip were not novel. “EPA’s Protective Service Detail tried to replicate the same security measures taken when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy traveled to Italy in 2015,” he wrote.

Thursday’s congressional letter offered a new detail about Perrotta: The Democratic senators said Chmielewski reported that Perrotta entered into a $ 30,000 contract with private Italian security personnel for that trip. Records have revealed that expense but did not disclose whether it was for a private detail.

One of the former EPA staffers said Perrotta was friends with those guards. That source described Pruitt’s protection while in Italy as extensive, with security agents from EPA and the U.S. Embassy, in addition to a large group of local agents.

News reports have revealed Pruitt also had a soundproof booth constructed for his office and considered having bulletproof desks installed.

And the spending isn’t over. EPA also appears to be planning to purchase bulletproof vests specially designed to blend in underneath regular clothing for his security detail, according to a solicitation issued on Friday. The solicitation calls for 16 white-colored vests of varying sizes manufactured by Velocity Systems, along with corresponding armor made of “special threat enhanced steel” and cummerbunds that provide enhanced protection.

The armor requested is just over a quarter-inch thick and can protect against the type of bullets shot from AK-47 rifles and some AR-15 semi-automatics, according to Velocity Systems’ website.

EPA would not confirm to POLITICO whether the armor is for Pruitt’s protective detail or for other agents, saying only that all agents in EPA’s criminal enforcement division, which includes Pruitt’s detail, “are assigned bulletproof vests” and that the effectiveness of the vests expires every five years. But a source familiar with EPA’s security operations said the vests are likely for Pruitt’s bodyguards because of their unusual specifications and the number requested. Other enforcement agents wouldn’t need their vests to be concealed, that source said.

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