WASHINGTON — 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 EPA later released official descriptions of the dinner that intentionally did not mention the cardinal’s presence, three current and former EPA officials told the New York Times.
Kevin Chmielewski, 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 Pruitt if it were made public. Twenty days after the dinner, authorities in Australia charged Pell with sexual assault; he has denied the charges.
"It was a no-brainer," Chmielewski said of the decision to keep 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 EPA 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 Pruitt wasn’t aware of the allegations against Pell. He also said the EPA had no knowledge that the cardinal would be attending the dinner.
However, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that as early as May 12, Pruitt’s scheduler, Millan Hupp, was working on plans for Pruitt to meet with 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 Pell attended ultimately took place June 9 at La Terrazza, a restaurant in the five-star Hotel Eden overlooking Rome.
An internal debate over whether to proceed with any meeting with Pell had begun well before Pruitt left for Italy, three current and former agency officials told the newspaper. Mark Kasman, a career EPA official who helps supervise international affairs at the agency, found media reports describing the allegations against Pell and approached Chmielewski with them, Chmielewski said, urging the agency to cancel any such meetings.
Pell has been under investigation in connection with sexual abuse allegations since 2016.
Kasman, reached in Morocco where he was attending a meeting with other U.S. government officials, referred questions to the agency’s Office of Public Affairs.
Pell’s presence at the dinner was initially revealed in EPA 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, Pruitt’s former policy chief, wrote the evening of the dinner to another Vatican official.
Dravis, reached Friday, said she did not know about the investigation into Pell at the time of the dinner.
At the dinner, Pruitt and Pell discussed a plan of Pruitt’s to stage public debates challenging the established science of climate change, the email shows.
The emails also show that much of 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 Leo was involved in planning for a dinner.
Leo did not respond to a request for comment.
Chmielewski said that a move to keep Pell off official schedules came after Pell was charged on June 29. Senior members of the agency’s leadership team agreed that it was best not to list Pell’s name in any official schedule the agency would release, according to Chmielewski and a second agency official. Chmielewski said that he personally shared that view.
At least four versions of Pruitt’s formal and detailed schedules for his week in Italy have been obtained by the New York Times. Two of them list individual attendees at the dinner, including Pruitt and his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson. None include Pell’s name.