At E.P.A., Pruitt’s ‘Sheriff’ Clashed With Critics of Spending

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WASHINGTON — A former Secret Service agent, with a background investigating the Gambino crime family, is serving as the chief of security for Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and has helped build an unusual and costly protective apparatus around him.

The agent, Pasquale Perrotta, has clashed — at least once physically — with top E.P.A. officials who challenged Mr. Pruitt’s spending, and has steered at least one E.P.A. security contract to a business associate, according to interviews with current and former senior agency officials.

Officially, Mr. Perrotta leads Mr. Pruitt’s protective detail, but he plays a far larger role at the E.P.A., offering security justifications for management, personnel and spending decisions, said the officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly and feared retribution. Mr. Perrotta’s outsize influence has placed him at the center of inquiries by the E.P.A. inspector general’s office into excessive spending and possible violations of contracting rules by Mr. Pruitt’s administration, according to the senior officials.

When Mr. Pruitt and his team became convinced that his office might have been bugged by environmentalists or disgruntled career employees, Mr. Perrotta recommended that a sweep for surveillance devices be conducted by a company owned by Edwin Steinmetz, who is listed as a vice president at a security firm Mr. Perrotta operates on the side, the senior officials said. Mr. Perrotta also used agency funds to hire Italy-based private security guards to protect Mr. Pruitt during a trip to Italy, they said.

A scathing six-page letter, sent Thursday to Mr. Pruitt by a group of Democratic lawmakers, criticized Mr. Pruitt’s lodging and security choices on that trip.

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While in Italy, Mr. Pruitt “refused to stay at hotels recommended by the U.S. Embassy, although the recommended hotel had law enforcement and other U.S. resources on site,” according to the letter, in which the lawmakers ask Mr. Pruitt to turn over documents related to the claims. Instead, Mr. Pruitt chose to stay “at more expensive hotels with fewer standard security resources,” while bringing along his own security team “at taxpayer expense.”

In addition, Mr. Perrotta played a central role in approving Mr. Pruitt’s regular use of first-class flights, and has often joined him in first class, including during the trip to Italy last June, for which travel costs totaled at least $120,000, according to public records. And when Mr. Pruitt wanted a secure place to make sensitive phone calls, Mr. Perrotta pushed for the construction of a $43,000 surveillance-proof booth in Mr. Pruitt’s office in Washington, over the objections of colleagues who had advocated a less expensive option. Mr. Perrotta also pressed, unsuccessfully, for a bulletproof vehicle for Mr. Pruitt and a bulletproof desk for his security detail.

From the time Mr. Pruitt arrived at the E.P.A., the Trump transition team requested increased security for him, suggesting that safety was a concern. But as Mr. Pruitt’s security measures and requests have grown over the past year, various internal reviews at the E.P.A. have questioned the need.

Mr. Perrotta, who joined the Secret Service in 1995 and moved to the E.P.A. in 2004, declined requests for comment left at his office at the E.P.A. and at his security consulting firm, Sequoia Security Group. An E.P.A. spokesman defended the heightened security measures, repeating previous E.P.A. assertions that Mr. Pruitt “has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats” and that “members of the president’s cabinet should be kept safe from these violent threats.”

A native New Yorker, Mr. Perrotta, 50, made a name for himself in the mid-1990s when he worked for the Bronx district attorney, investigating gambling and loan-sharking activities of the Gambino crime family, and then later helping efforts that led to the arrest and conviction of John Gotti, the longtime boss of the Gambino family.

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Mr. Pruitt traveled in first class last summer to Italy, where Mr. Perrotta used agency funds to hire local private security guards to protect him. Credit Environmental Protection Agency

Longtime E.P.A. employees described Mr. Perrotta as a backslapper and a fast-talker who enjoys talking about his mob-busting days and has given the impression that he chafed under the leadership of others.

Since taking over the protective detail weeks after Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation in February 2017, Mr. Perrotta has cheekily referred to himself as the agency’s sheriff and has whistled the distinctive tune made famous by the Western film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” said two E.P.A. officials who worked with Mr. Perrotta. On occasion, he has worn a black cowboy hat and boots around the E.P.A. office, a move that some colleagues considered a lighthearted allusion to Mr. Pruitt’s home state, Oklahoma.

Mr. Perrotta, a polarizing figure in the agency, is viewed among some career officials as playing to Mr. Pruitt’s ego and security fears to seize power over rivals. The measures he advocated in the name of security provided Mr. Pruitt with perks more commonly associated with heads of state, and often came over the objections of top agency officials. Some of them complained that Mr. Perrotta was playing fast and loose with the rules, but that he could not be challenged because he was thought to have Mr. Pruitt’s blessing.

Ercole Gaudioso, a former New York Organized Crime Task Force investigator who worked the Gotti case with Mr. Perrotta, says he thinks his former junior partner, with whom he keeps in contact, may find the work of protecting a cabinet secretary boring by comparison.

“He was the guy who wanted to be out fighting the bad guy all the time,” Mr. Gaudioso said.

In a self-published 2016 book detailing his work in law enforcement, Mr. Perrotta acknowledged skirmishes during his career, particularly in its early days.

“It often appeared to me that my fellow agents and supervisors did not quite get me, my motivations and authenticity often maligned and misunderstood,” he wrote. “I have come to accept that I contributed to this misconception and false labeling in part because of my high level of energy.”

Mr. Perrotta became Mr. Pruitt’s security chief after the administrator removed Eric Weese, a special agent who had a reputation, even before Mr. Pruitt’s arrival, for closely following agency rules, even if it might mean standing up to political appointees, according to Fred Burnside, who led the E.P.A.’s criminal enforcement division from 2008 to 2010.

“We always encouraged anyone to speak up if they disagree with the direction of the organization,” Mr. Burnside said.

Mr. Weese had denied Mr. Pruitt’s requests to use lights and sirens when being driven in his agency-issued vehicle to restaurants and airports, and also made it clear he would be opposed to signing off on security waivers to allow Mr. Pruitt to fly in first class.

Mr. Perrotta not only indulged those requests, but also quickly moved to restrict access to Mr. Pruitt, making his office and the rest of that floor of the E.P.A. headquarters off-limits to anyone who was not on a list drawn up by Mr. Perrotta, said Ronald Slotkin, former director of the agency’s multimedia office.

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Kevin Chmielewski, right, a deputy chief of staff at the E.P.A., was placed on administrative leave after months of raising objections to Mr. Pruitt’s security spending. Credit Delamarvanow.com

“We used to be friends,” Mr. Slotkin said, referring to Mr. Perrotta. Then, he said, “boom, overnight this list was blocking me from getting in.”

Mr. Perrotta urged Mr. Pruitt to take other steps in the name of security that struck some as excessive, including the surveillance-thwarting booth and the sweep for listening devices.

Sweeps are typically initiated by the agency’s homeland security office and are conducted by government personnel or certified outside contractors, two agency officials said. Mr. Perrotta, instead, turned to Mr. Steinmetz, a vice president at the security firm that Mr. Perrotta founded in 2013 and continues to work for even while on the E.P.A. payroll. The agency confirmed that Mr. Perrotta had gotten a waiver to maintain outside employment.

“It was an emergency, they needed it right away,” said Mr. Steinmetz, who had conducted security sweeps for other government agencies, but never previously for the E.P.A. “I dropped everything and took care of it.”

Mr. Steinmetz, who received $3,000 for the work, said none of the money went to Mr. Perrotta or his company. The E.P.A. did not respond to a question about whether the sweep turned up anything. But Mr. Steinmetz suggested it had been necessary because “there are people there working behind the scenes doing anything they can to cause embarrassment for this administrator,” including, he said, “holdovers from the previous administration.”

The sweep, conducted within weeks of Mr. Pruitt’s taking office in February 2017, inflamed tensions between Mr. Perrotta and the agency’s homeland security office, where officials were increasingly — and openly — skeptical of the expensive security demands.

Things got so heated that a scuffle broke out during a meeting last summer of the agency’s top security and administrative staff, according to attendees. They said that Mr. Perrotta traded expletives with Mario Caraballo, who until recently served as the deputy associate administrator of the homeland security office, and that the two men had to be physically separated.

Frictions persisted as Mr. Perrotta worked to consolidate power within the security detail, giving his team a top role in evaluating threats against Mr. Pruitt and determining the financial resources needed to combat them.

One part-time member of the security detail, John C. Martin, was removed when it was discovered that his cellphone had an application that allowed him to communicate confidentially, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The application was discovered after the E.P.A. did an audit of government-issued mobile devices, looking for secure applications such as Signal and WhatsApp, which could be used to communicate with members of the media, as well as for legitimate government work. Mr. Martin had raised questions internally about the bug-sweeping contract and the security booth, agency officials said.

Mr. Perrotta later instructed Kevin Chmielewski, a Trump administration political appointee who had served as Mr. Pruitt’s deputy chief of staff, to confiscate Mr. Martin’s gun and badge, according to agency officials. Mr. Chmielewski later told associates that he regretted carrying out Mr. Perrotta’s instructions, which he came to believe were retaliatory.

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Patrick Sullivan, the E.P.A. assistant inspector general investigating possible spending violations, served in the Secret Service with Mr. Perrotta. Even as Mr. Perrotta’s activities have come under scrutiny, the two men have been spotted together at a bar near the agency’s headquarters. Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

Mr. Perrotta also retained more than a dozen private security guards for Mr. Pruitt’s trip to Italy, a decision that would typically be made by the agency’s homeland security office and the State Department.

According to an E.P.A. official who was involved in the trip, Mr. Perrotta and the security guards attended a five-course meal at a Rome restaurant with Mr. Pruitt and his staff, a rarity for security personnel, who usually do not dine with those they protect.

Officials from the E.P.A.’s homeland security office, under Mr. Caraballo, questioned the need for all of the additional security expenses. “EPA Intelligence has not identified any specific credible direct threat to the E.P.A. administrator,” a memo from Mr. Caraballo’s office said in February.

After excerpts from the memo were made public by two Democrats in the Senate this week, Mr. Pruitt’s staff confirmed that Mr. Caraballo had been removed from his job. He is one of several career officials who have been reassigned or removed after challenging Mr. Perrotta’s implementation of enhanced security measures for Mr. Pruitt. Even political appointees have not been immune.

After months of objecting to Mr. Pruitt’s security spending, Mr. Chmielewski, who had been among the first employees of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was asked to surrender his credentials, electronic security card and parking pass to one of Mr. Perrotta’s agents late one night in the agency’s parking lot.

Mr. Chmielewski refused, got in his car and began driving to his family’s home in Maryland, at which point he got a call from Mr. Perrotta, according to an administration official briefed on the exchange and the letter sent Thursday by Democrats in Congress. If Mr. Chmielewski did not immediately return to the E.P.A. to surrender his credentials, security card and parking pass, Mr. Perrotta said he would drive to Mr. Chmielewski’s home that night and personally retrieve them.

Mr. Chmielewski reported the exchange, which he characterized as a threat, to the White House and to the E.P.A.’s internal affairs and criminal investigative divisions. Mr. Chmielewski, Mr. Martin and others who have crossed Mr. Perrotta have told associates that they are concerned Mr. Perrotta will not be held to account by the inspector general.

Even after Mr. Perrotta’s colleagues raised concerns about his oversight of Mr. Pruitt’s security, Mr. Perrotta and the assistant inspector general who oversees investigation, Patrick Sullivan, have been spotted drinking beers together at Elephant and Castle, a bar across the street from the E.P.A. headquarters. The men were both with the Secret Service before coming to the E.P.A. Mr. Perrotta initially worked in the inspector general’s office when he arrived at the agency, and moved to the security detail late in George W. Bush’s presidency.

A spokesman for the inspector general did not dispute that Mr. Perrotta and Mr. Sullivan were “friendly” but disputed that they socialized outside of work and added that the office has “impairment and impartiality requirements” intended to prevent bias in any investigation.

Mr. Steinmetz, the business associate of Mr. Perrotta, said he had been encouraged by Mr. Perrotta to be candid if contacted by the inspector general.

“We’ve got nothing to hide,” said Mr. Steinmetz. “I know the guy. I know that he’s straightforward. He’s honest.”

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Senators: E.P.A. Files Undercut Pruitt’s Need for First-Class Travel

In Letter to E.P.A., Top Ethics Officer Questions Pruitt’s Actions

E.P.A. Officials Sidelined After Questioning Scott Pruitt

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