EPA Chief of Staff Approved Raises for Aides, Watchdog Finds

(Bloomberg) -- EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s chief of staff signed off on controversial raises for employees of as much as 72 percent, according to the agency’s internal watchdog.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general released documents Monday showing Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson authorized three of those salary increases using an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

That buttresses Jackson’s assertion last week that he, not Pruitt, was responsible for the raises -- and that the EPA administrator had no knowledge of the amount of the increases nor the method by which they came about. In authorizing the raises, the EPA effectively overruled White House officials who had objected to at least two of the salary increases.

Pruitt said in a Fox News interview earlier this month that he didn’t authorize two of the raises and didn’t know who did. "It should not have been done," Pruitt said in the interview that aired April 4. "There will be some accountability."

The documents released Monday were included in a so-called "management alert" tied to the inspector general’s ongoing probe of how the EPA has used its special hiring authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to fill "administratively determined" positions.

Under that law, the EPA administrator has the authority to fill as many as 30 scientific, engineering, professional, legal or administrative positions without undergoing the customary civil service hiring process. The approach, which enables an EPA administrator to swiftly bring on staff, also has been used by Pruitt’s predecessors.

The inspector general didn’t make any judgment about the appropriateness of the actions or say whether Pruitt knew about the raises. The alert "does not present any conclusions or recommendations," Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. said in a memo on the ongoing audit.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the agency welcomed the review and was cooperating with inquiries into its hiring practices.

"Salary determinations for appointees are made by EPA’s chief of staff, White House liaison and career human resources officials," with an eye on avoiding disparities, Wilcox said in an emailed statement. "Salaries are based on work history, and, any increases are due to either new and additional responsibilities or promotions."

Completed personnel forms contained in the inspector general’s alert show that Jackson signed off on the salary increases in two places: both under "action requested by Ryan T. Jackson, chief of staff" and under "action authorized by E. Scott Pruitt, administrator." In the second, authorization box, Jackson signed "Ryan Jackson for Scott Pruitt."

Pruitt did sign off on the initial decision to hire the three aides, according to included forms. The inspector general’s alert does not name the staff members. Based on information contained in the forms cross-referenced with data in separate documents obtained by the Nick Surgey, co-director of the watchdog group Documented, they are believed to be Director of Scheduling and Advance Millan Hupp, Senior Counsel Sarah Greenwalt and Brittany Bolen, a deputy associate administrator for policy.

Hupp and Greenwalt both worked for Pruitt when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general.

One of the employees secured two successive raises amounting to a 67.6 percent increase -- worth $66,244. A second aide ended up with $114,590, after two raises worth 72.3 percent overall. A third raise for one of the employees Pruitt personally hired was modest by comparison: a 1.6 percent increase that brought that person’s salary to $151,700.

The raises have now been reversed and future salary change requests will be submitted through the Office of Presidential Personnel for evaluation, Jackson said in a written statement last week.

Separately, the EPA defended its decision to install a soundproof privacy booth in Pruitt’s office at a cost of $43,238, in a letter to the Government Accountability Office obtained by Bloomberg News.

The expenditure didn’t run afoul of law requiring congressional notification for expenditures of more than $5,000 for improvements to an agency head’s office because it was needed for official agency business, Kevin Minoli, the EPA’s principal deputy general counsel, wrote in a March 23 letter to the GAO.

A former EPA employee told lawmakers Pruitt surpassed the $5,000 budget he was given to redecorate his office by purchasing an additional standing desk, paying to rent art from the Smithsonian Institution and framing an 8-by-10-foot American flag. Some security-related spending on Pruitt’s office, including the installation of biometric locks, was considered outside the $5,000 limitation, according to emails released to the watchdog group American Oversight under an open records request.

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