Three months after Scott Pruitt was sworn in as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, his executive scheduler emailed Dan Cathy, chairman and chief executive of the fast-food company Chick-fil-A, with an unusual request: Would Cathy meet with Pruitt to discuss “a potential business opportunity”?
A call was arranged, then canceled, and Pruitt eventually spoke with someone from the company’s legal department. Only then did he reveal the “opportunity” on his mind was a job for his wife, Marlyn.
“The subject of that phone call was an expression of interest in his wife becoming a Chick-fil-A franchisee,” company representative Carrie Kurlander told The Washington Post via email.
Marlyn Pruitt never opened a restaurant. “Administrator Pruitt’s wife started, but did not complete, the Chick-fil-A franchisee application,” Kurlander said. But the revelation that Pruitt used his official position and EPA staff to try to line up work for his wife appears to open a new chapter in the ongoing saga of his questionable spending and management decisions, which so far have spawned a dozen federal probes.
Pruitt’s efforts on his wife’s behalf — revealed in emails recently released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Sierra Club — did not end with Chick-fil-A. He also approached the chief executive of Concordia, a New York nonprofit organization. The executive, Matthew A. Swift, said he ultimately paid Marlyn Pruitt $2,000 plus travel expenses to help organize the group’s annual conference last September.
Multiple current and former EPA aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said Scott Pruitt told them he was eager for his wife to start receiving a salary. Two said the administrator was frustrated in part by the high cost of maintaining homes in both Washington and Oklahoma.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox declined to comment on Pruitt’s overtures on his wife’s behalf to Concordia and Chick-fil-A.
Federal ethics laws bar public officials from using their position or staff for private gain. A Cabinet-level official using his perch to contact a company CEO about a job for his wife “raises the specter of misuse of public office,” said Don Fox, who was head of the federal Office of Government Ethics during the Obama administration. “It’s not much different [from] if he [had] asked the aide to facilitate getting a franchise for himself.”
Asking a government scheduler, Sydney Hupp, to plan the meeting also marks a violation of federal rules barring officials from asking subordinates to perform personal tasks, Fox said. “It is a misuse of the aide’s time to ask the aide to do something like this that is really for personal financial benefit.”
Hupp left the EPA last year; she did not respond to a request for comment.
Hupp was not the only EPA employee enlisted to perform nonofficial tasks. Last month, Pruitt acknowledged that Hupp’s sister, Millan, helped him search for housing in the District. She later told congressional staffers she made inquiries at the Trump International Hotel about buying him a used mattress while she was on the EPA payroll.
The Georgia-based Chick-fil-A receives about 40,000 “expressions of interest” each year from people hoping to operate one of its restaurants, Kurlander said.
“The process of becoming a franchisee is very thorough and results in approximately 100 people being selected each year,” she wrote. “We are very proud of the fact that those who are selected demonstrate the leadership ability and business acumen needed to own and operate Chick-fil-A restaurants.”