New York Times
“Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, dined last year in Rome with Cardinal George Pell, a prominent climate-science denialist and Vatican leader who was also facing sexual abuse allegations. The E.P.A. later released official descriptions of the dinner that intentionally did not mention the cardinal’s presence, according to three current and former E.P.A. officials.
Kevin Chmielewski, Mr. Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, said in an interview that top political appointees at the agency feared that the meeting would reflect poorly on Mr. Pruitt if it were made public. Twenty days after the dinner, authorities in Australia charged Cardinal Pell with sexual assault; he has denied the charges.
“It was a no-brainer,” Mr. Chmielewski said of the decision to keep Cardinal Pell’s participation quiet. His account was confirmed by two people who were familiar with the handling of the trip, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern over retribution.
On Friday, Jahan Wilcox, an E.P.A. spokesman, issued a statement confirming the June 9 meal took place while emphasizing that it “was not a private one-on-one dinner” and saying that Mr. Pruitt wasn’t aware of the allegations against Cardinal Pell. He also said the E.P.A. had no knowledge the cardinal would be attending the dinner.
However, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that as early as May 12, Mr. Pruitt’s scheduler, Millan Hupp, was working on plans for Mr. Pruitt to meet with Cardinal Pell. “Dinner with Cardinal Pell and others,” an email says, proposing the dinner for June 7 and adding, “Note: His 76th birthday is tomorrow.”
The dinner Cardinal Pell attended ultimately took place June 9 at La Terrazza, a restaurant in the five-star Hotel Eden overlooking Rome.
Mr. Pruitt’s trip was an official E.P.A. visit tied to the G-7 summit in Bologna. Mr. Pruitt’s frequent first-class travel, including to Italy, is under investigation by the E.P.A.’s inspector general and the House Oversight Committee.
An internal debate over whether to proceed with any meeting with Cardinal Pell had begun well before Mr. Pruitt left for Italy, according to three current and former agency officials. Mark Kasman, a career E.P.A. official who helps supervise international affairs at the agency, found media reports describing the allegations against Cardinal Pell and approached Mr. Chmielewski with them, Mr. Chmielewski said, urging the agency to cancel any such meetings. Mr. Chmielewski said he relayed the concern to Mr. Pruitt.
Cardinal Pell has been under investigation in connection with sexual abuse allegations since 2016.
Mr. Kasman, reached in Morocco where he was attending a meeting with other United States government officials, referred questions to the agency’s Office of Public Affairs.
Cardinal Pell’s presence at the dinner was initially revealed in E.P.A. emails obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, this week. “I am at dinner with Cardinal Pell and Mr. Pruitt,” Samantha Dravis, Mr. Pruitt’s former policy chief, wrote the evening of the dinner to another Vatican official.
Ms. Dravis, reached Friday, said she did not know about the investigation into Cardinal Pell at the time of the dinner, and did not participate in any conversations or deliberations about whether the cardinal’s name should be left off the schedule.
At the dinner, Mr. Pruitt and Cardinal Pell discussed a plan of Mr. Pruitt’s to stage public debates challenging the established science of climate change, the email shows.
The emails also show that much of Mr. Pruitt’s time in Rome was spent attending events recommended or arranged by Leonard A. Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, a conservative organization that promotes limits on federal regulations. The May emails suggest that Mr. Leo was involved in planning for a dinner.
Mr. Leo did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Chmielewski said that a move to keep Cardinal Pell off official schedules came after Cardinal Pell was charged on June 29. Some senior members of the agency’s leadership team agreed that it was best not to list Cardinal Pell’s name in any official schedule the agency would release, according to Mr. Chmielewski and a second agency official. Mr. Chmielewski said that he personally shared that view.
At least four versions of Mr. Pruitt’s formal and detailed schedules for his week in Italy — one posted online, and three released under the Freedom of Information Act — have been obtained by The New York Times. Two of them list individual attendees at the dinner, including Mr. Pruitt and his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson. None include Cardinal Pell’s name.
Mr. Chmielewski joined the E.P.A. in 2017 after having worked on Republican presidential campaigns. Earlier this year, he said, he was fired from the agency for challenging Mr. Pruitt’s spending decisions.Mr. Pruitt faces 11 investigations into his spending and management practices at the agency. Mr. Pruitt testified to Congress recently that Mr. Chmielewski resigned.
Mr. Jackson said that neither he nor the administrator was informed about the investigation into Cardinal Pell before the trip. He also said discussions about leaving Cardinal Pell’s name off the schedules never took place.
“The only ever conversation that happened was, ‘Hey, these schedules change so quickly that we need to be really diligent about keeping the records of what actually happened,’” Mr. Jackson said. He added that he did not know why Cardinal Pell’s name did not appear on official schedules, but noted that schedules are fast-moving and participants change frequently. “Documents change every five minutes, to be entirely candid with you,” he said.”