Kevin Chmielewski has been a surprising figure at the center of the latest revelations regarding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s ethics scandals.
In a pair of stunning letters sent Thursday to Pruitt and President Donald Trump, Chmielewski — a Trump political appointee and former EPA deputy chief of staff — alleges that he was “marginalized, removed from his senior position and placed on administrative leave” for speaking up about Pruitt’s “inappropriate and unethical spending.”
Top Democratic lawmakers told Pruitt in their letter that if the information provided by Chmielewski proves to be accurate, it “leaves us certain that your leadership at EPA has been fraught with numerous and repeated unethical and potentially illegal actions on a wide range of consequential matters.”
But part of understanding the weight of Chmielewski’s allegations requires acknowledging who he is: a lifelong Republican and Trump supporter.
Chmielewski, 38, joined the EPA in May 2017 as the director of scheduling and advance before becoming the agency’s deputy chief of staff of operations. According to ProPublica’s Trump Town database, in this position he was earning a senior executive salary of $140,000.
Before this, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard and Merchant Marines. He also worked on several campaigns for top Republicans, including John McCain, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — now head of the Department of Energy — and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And in 2016, he was a personal assistant, or “body man,” for Trump on the presidential campaign.
During one rally in Berlin, Maryland, Trump encouraged Chmielewski to come onstage, calling him a “star” and a “champ.”
The rally was held at Stephen Decatur High School; Chmielewski graduated from the school in 1998. In the middle of Trump’s 45-minute speech, Chmielewski was reluctantly summoned to the podium. “Where the hell is Kevin?” Trump said to the crowd. “He’s a star, where is Kevin?”
“I don’t know what they produce at this school, but this guy’s a champ. He’s tough as hell. Whenever there’s a problem, he runs right in, like full blast, runs in. He is a wild man.”
In a rare interview with The Dispatch at the time, Chmielewski described Trump as “one of the best people I’ve ever met.”
“I am not a public speaker at all,” he said, “but I think him inviting me up on stage is a true testament to the type of guy Mr. Trump is. He’s one of the most genuine human beings I know and that moment was a dream come true for me.”
In the interview, Chmielewski also discussed his childhood. He says he was “one of those knucklehead kids” who got “straight C’s and D’s” in school. He also described living on welfare and not attending college. He got his lucky break in politics through his brother, “who does production work in Washington” and introduced Chmielewski to “some White House advance guys who gave him a shot in 2003 to help manage a trip for then-Vice President Dick Cheney,” The Dispatch wrote.
Describing working on campaigns, Chmielewski said, somewhat presciently, “it’s a tough job, and it can end at the drop of a hat. When McCain lost, I was out of a job, and the same thing happened with Romney. My life is one big gamble.”
Perhaps the biggest gamble Chmielewski took was challenging Pruitt’s demands.
This includes preventing the agency from entering into a $100,000 per month contract to rent a private jet for the administrator’s travel. Chmielewski also pushed back against a proposal to spend $70,000 to replace two of Pruitt’s desks in his office.
After repeatedly raising concerns about Pruitt’s travel expenses, the Democrats’ letter claims Chmielewski received a text from Pruitt saying “his presence was no longer welcome” at travel scheduling meetings.
Separately, Chmielewski has been identified in media reports as an alleged source behind other leaks of information about Pruitt’s ethics scandals, according to the New York Times. (A former Trump aide, Rob Porter, is another alleged source of some of the leaks.)
On March 18, 2018, Chmielewski was fired from the EPA. There are mixed accounts regarding why he lost his job. According to the New York Times, officials at the agency blamed his “unresponsiveness” while on trips as the main reason for his dismissal.
But as the letters sent Thursday by top democrats state, Chmielewski alleges he was fired shortly after he refused to retroactively approve a first-class return flight for Samantha Dravis — former EPA senior counsel and associate administrator in the Office of Policy — who flew to Morocco in December with Pruitt. Chmielewski believes this to have been the “final straw.”
Chmielewski was placed on administrative leave in February without pay, and claims to have only learned about his dismissal through media reports.
Throughout his time working in the Trump administration, he is reported to have maintained a close relationship with both the president and Vice President Mike Pence, with whom he sometimes traveled on official trips.
Trump has repeatedly affirmed his support for Pruitt in the face of his numerous ethics scandals. The president has not commented on Chmielewski’s allegations.
Both the White House and the EPA did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment, and Chmielewski could not be reached for comment.
There is still a lot that isn’t known about Chmielewski. For instance, according to ProPublica, he never filed a financial disclosure form during his time in the Trump administration. These financial disclosure forms are required to ensure transparency and determine whether there are any financial conflicts of interest.
Not filing such a form — one he is still obligated to provide even though he has now left the agency — is a “rare and potentially serious offense that in other cases has resulted in a criminal charge by the Justice Department,” according to ProPublica.
He’s not alone: ProPublica identified three other individuals who have since left the agency and have received complaints from ethics officials for either not responding to outstanding questions or for filing their forms late, despite repeated reminders.
And Chmielewski is not the only staffer to have been demoted, fired, or reassigned as a result of Pruitt’s efforts to quash opposition within the EPA — at least four other EPA employees were demoted or reassigned for questioning Pruitt’s unreasonable demands, the New York Times reported last week.
The new allegations by Chmielewski against Pruitt detailed in the Democrats’ letter this week provide further insight into the way the EPA head has run the agency.
As Chmielewski claims, after he returned from a trip to Asia in February, Pruitt’s head of security, Nino Perrotta, tried to have Chmielewski’s EPA credentials confiscated. During one call, Chmielewski described Perrotta saying he would go to Chmielewski’s home and forcibly retrieve his EPA parking pass, saying that he “didn’t give a f–k who is on this call.”
Pruitt also tried to justify first-class travel “under the guise of security,” the letter states. A member of Pruitt’s security detail, Reginald Allen, was reportedly removed from the team and has his gun and badge removed after raising concerns about Pruitt’s behavior.
“He was very unpopular because he was telling them what they needed to do to just keep it legal,” a former EPA employee told E&E News.
When speaking with the Democrats earlier this week, Chmielewski repeatedly reaffirmed his loyalty to Trump. However, according to the letter addressed to the president, he explained his decision to speak out against Pruitt as, “regardless of political party, ‘right is right, and wrong is wrong.’”
According to Buzzfeed, Chmielewksi met with staffers on the Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Thursday afternoon where he confirmed many of the details contained in the Democrats’ letter. Committee spokeswoman Amanda Gonzalez told Buzzfeed they are “still in the middle of assessing next steps.”