Ever since the 2016 fiasco involving a certain private email server, watchdog groups in Washington have kept a much closer eye on the digital communications made by the elected leaders of this country.
One man in particular has been under particularly scrutiny, given his penchant for big price tags on the taxpayers dime: that would be Scott Pruitt, the man at the helm of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Not only has Pruitt no concept of the value of a dollar, but he’s apparently no fan of technology, either. According to a report by Politico, Pruitt has only written one single email to anyone outside of the EPA during his first 10 months in office.
In an era of smartphones and constant connectivity, that number raised a red flag for D.C. watchdogs who believe Pruitt may be communicating on a – wait for it – private email server.
EPA officials say Pruitt prefers to hold discussions in private or over the phone, which explains his incredibly brief digital trail for external communications.
But this is the same man who once requested a $43,000 soundproof booth be installed in his office for his government-funded remodel, so he’s either really paranoid or trying really hard to keep his business secret. Perhaps okay in private business, but not as an employee of the federal government.
With that in mind, plus the knowledge that his underlings regularly try and keep his activities a secret, critics have stayed on high-alert.
Melanie Sloan, a senior adviser at American Oversight, one of the watchdog groups eyeing Pruitt’s suspicious habits, weighed in on her group’s top concern:
“The emails, if they exist, could show what these people want and then those emails could be compared to what the EPA does. Americans should know what the EPA is doing, why it’s doing it and who’s influencing those decisions.”
Sloan and her peers consider it to be incredibly implausible that someone as active as Pruitt could send so few external emails in such a span of time. Agency records also include evidence that Pruitt has used text messages at least once to set up a meeting with an Oklahoma lawyer which could point to a separate means of private communication, one which experts claim is harder to track.
For what it’s worth, it is not actually illegal for an elected official to use a private email server. What got Hillary Clinton in trouble was that she failed to archive her correspondence; hence the probe. Text messages, by design, have no means of archival, even for who sent the message as opposed to who received it.
The email was released by the EPA after activist group the Sierra Club filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get details about Pruitt’s external communications. The group had been waiting for the correspondence for more than a year, so they were understandably concerned when they received only a singular email.
“It is entirely possible that he doesn’t use email, but that becomes suspect,” said Justine Cowan, an attorney helping lead the Sierra Club’s legal effort. “How is he conducting business, and is he doing that on purpose so that we don’t get the records? In this day and age, who doesn’t use email?”
Previously released EPA documents show that a lobbyist helped plan Pruitt’s international travels, and that GOP donors both weighed in on policy decisionsand set up meetings with him for friends. That makes the gap in Pruitt’s communications trail especially significant, American Oversight’s Sloan said.
“When you’re a Cabinet secretary, you have enough people around you to send the emails, and you’re pretty busy,” she said. “On the other hand, I get the feeling Scott Pruitt likes to hide what he’s doing even from top staff, which would mean he’d be likely to correspond on his own.”
From February to December 2017, Pruitt only sent one email to an external account from one of his epa.gov addresses. It was a September 1 response to a consultant with Capitol Hill Consulting Group per the records Sierra Club received from the EPA, responding to a dinner invitation the consultant had extended to Pruitt.
There was also a forwarded email with a speaking engagement request for November 14, though the EPA redacted the address of the recipient. The agency cited a legal exception for “personal privacy” in blocking out the address.
In total, the Sierra Club’s request for Pruitt’s messages to people outside EPA produced 25 pages of documents, including the two emails and nine text messages. The texts do not reveal who he communicated with or whether the messages were to or from him.
Under normal circumstances, delving further into this probe would probably be a waste of the Sierra Club’s resources – but nothing about the Trump administration is normal, so they intend to forge ahead.