Trump EPA officials schemed pay for fired staff

By Kevin Bogardus | 06/28/2021 12:25 PM EST

Former EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); EPA and C-SPAN (Jackson); ©2019 Google (map)

This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. EDT.

EPA’s internal watchdog discussed possible criminal prosecution after a pair of former President Trump’s senior appointees orchestrated payouts and forged time sheets, costing the government tens of thousands of dollars.

EPA’s Office of Inspector General, as detailed in a report obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act, investigated then-Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson and Charles Munoz, who served as the White House liaison and later as senior adviser for the EPA Region 9 administrator.

The IG report, dated March 31, said Jackson and Munoz arranged "improper post-termination pay" to two EPA employees after they were fired from the agency, which is not allowed under federal law.

Jackson and Munoz made and used records containing "materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements" to "mislead EPA personnel" and facilitate payments to the ex-staffers, according to the report.

Those fired employees kept on the payroll had questioned suspect record keeping and mismanagement by then-Administrator Scott Pruitt and his aides before they were let go by EPA. Pruitt resigned in 2018 under a crush of ethics troubles.

The inspector general’s investigation also expanded to focus on Munoz and his move out West.

Investigators found that Jackson had provided Munoz with an "improper" four-step pay increase when Munoz was appointed to the senior adviser role outside of Washington. Then based at an EPA office in Las Vegas, Munoz falsified documents to receive pay for hours when he wasn’t at work.

For its investigation into the payments rendered to EPA employees after they left the agency, the IG office talked with the offices for U.S. attorneys in Washington, D.C., and Nevada as well as the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section about "the allegations and findings for potential criminal prosecution," according to the report. But none wanted to pursue the Trump EPA officials.

"The cases were declined by all prosecutive entities," the report said.

The watchdog office also consulted with the offices for U.S. attorneys in California and Nevada about Munoz’s "potential time-and-attendance fraud" concerning allegations and possible criminal charges. Yet they, too, declined to prosecute.

The inspector general’s latest semiannual report also included information on the investigation. It had a timeline of the six separate occasions it referred the cases to the Justice Department, beginning in November 2018 and up to October 2020.

Jackson, EPA’s chief of staff under Pruitt and later Administrator Andrew Wheeler, left the agency in February 2020 to join the National Mining Association as its senior vice president for government and political affairs.

Munoz, who first came to EPA as part of Trump’s "beachhead" team in 2017, resigned from the agency on Jan. 20 along with the former president’s other appointees.

Jackson didn’t respond to questions from E&E News for this story. Munoz couldn’t be reached.

"This case highlights Inspector General Sean O’Donnell’s commitment to pursue investigations of potential wrongdoing even if the responsible officials are no longer employed by the agency," EPA OIG spokesperson Jennifer Kaplan told E&E News. "He remains committed to ensuring that public officials are held accountable for any acts of misconduct during their public service."

The report said it was being provided to Administrator Michael Regan "for any action deemed appropriate."

When asked about the report, EPA spokesperson Lindsay Hamilton told E&E News the agency didn’t have comment to share but would do so in the future if it had comment.

‘I wanted to be helpful’

The IG report describes how Jackson kept the two fired EPA employees, both of whose names were redacted, on the payroll with Munoz’s help.

In 2017, one of the employees emailed Jackson 22 days after their termination to say, "Also I haven’t got paid yet, usually I get paid on Thursday. I just wanted to see if something has changed since our conversation about being paid a few months."

Jackson responded, "We have not put in any paperwork on you so no one is aware of any actions."

That exchange matches a series of emails between Jackson and Madeline Morris, formerly the executive scheduler in the administrator’s office, which EPA released to the Sierra Club under a FOIA lawsuit.

Morris confirmed to The New York Times that she was fired after questioning why meetings were deleted from Pruitt’s calendar. EPA later acknowledged that Pruitt’s official calendar had been changed, but a subsequent review by the National Archives and Records Administration said claims of "unauthorized disposition" of records were unfounded (Greenwire, Feb. 21, 2019).

Morris, when contacted for this story, declined to comment and referred E&E News to her attorney.

An attorney for Morris, Sarah Fink with KaiserDillon PLLC, also declined to comment.

Munoz forged time-and-attendance reports for the employee, showing they worked "episodic telework," which Jackson signed. Munoz acknowledged to investigators that the continued payments were wrong and "potentially theft against the government," according to the report.

"I didn’t think it was really fair to [redacted] what was going down," Jackson told investigators about the arrangement. "I wanted to be helpful to [redacted]."

Jackson said in another interview with the IG office, "If you guys want to write something bad about it … and send it to Wheeler, knock yourself out, but that’s what I did."

The report says the fired employee received $14,181.38 for pay and benefits.

The second fired EPA employee kept on the agency’s payroll was told by Munoz in 2018 that if they did not resign, they would be unable to get a job with the federal government and would fail to receive severance pay.

The employee knew no such thing like severance pay existed for federal workers. Munoz admitted to investigators that Jackson directed him to provide the severance pay.

The employee was later escorted out by an EPA armed security guard.

In addition, the employee was urged to resign but refused to sign the required paperwork. Munoz later falsely filled out a form, saying the employee had resigned, which Jackson also signed.

Munoz, directed by Jackson, also approved pay for 80 work hours and holiday pay for the employee after their termination.

Those events described in the IG report follow what Kevin Chmielewski, once deputy chief of operations at EPA, laid out about what happened to him at the agency in his own lawsuit alleging retaliation for raising concerns.

Further, that lawsuit says Chmielewski "initially continued to get paid while having no assignments."

After the dispute at EPA, Chmielewski, who was part of the Trump 2016 campaign’s advance team, became a vocal critic of Pruitt’s, detailing lavish spending on security and travel by the former administrator.

Chmielewski didn’t respond to questions for this story.

In a statement shared with E&E News after this story first published, Samantha Feinstein, counsel to Chmielewski at Government Accountability Project, said when Chmielewski blew the whistle on Pruitt’s misconduct, he was asked to resign but he refused.

"Two months later, despite his continued refusal, the EPA falsely represented to Kevin that he had resigned — at no time before was he informed he had been removed, fired, or otherwise terminated," Feinstein said. "Three years later, in a new presidential administration and after federal investigations already confirmed Kevin’s disclosures, we’re still fighting in court to defend his rights."

Jackson told investigators he tried to help the employee by getting them placed with another agency and keeping them on payroll to avoid a "break in service."

The second terminated employee received $23,731.85 in pay and benefits.

Missing in Las Vegas

During the turmoil over Pruitt in 2018, Munoz, then the White House liaison, left EPA’s Washington headquarters to work in Las Vegas.

Jackson told the IG office Munoz was from Las Vegas and "was interested in doing something new and closer to where he was from," the report said.

Jackson created a position for Munoz, senior adviser to the regional administrator in Region 9. EPA has a finance center in Las Vegas, which became Munoz’s new place of work and was far from that region’s main office in San Francisco.

As part of the move, Munoz received a four-step pay increase, which wasn’t permitted under federal regulations, according to the report.

Due to Munoz’s improper pay increase, the government lost $40,575.11 from the date of his appointment through Nov. 7 last year, after which he converted to "Senior Level pay scale" until his resignation on Jan. 20.

Also, Munoz "continued to lie" about his location during times he said he was working regular hours, the report said.

He submitted "false information" for 14 out of 15 pay periods between May and December 2018. Investigators, reviewing cellphone data and emails, among other information, found times when Munoz said he was working but instead had Department of Motor Vehicles appointments, received a furniture delivery at home or picked up "item(s)" from Target.

EPA employees in Las Vegas provided statements saying Munoz was not in the office most days. One employee, their name redacted, said Munoz would leave around midday or lunchtime and not return.

Munoz admitted that there were times he would not show up to the office but he considered himself working "because he was accessible by phone," the report said.

The government’s total loss for Munoz’s misconduct with his time and attendance was $55,150.44.

Ex-chief of staff warned

A footnote in the IG report sheds light on how the investigation was conducted.

The inspector general’s special agents gave Jackson the Kalkines warning, an advisement of rights, before he did an interview with them on Dec. 18, 2019.

"This warning advised Mr. Jackson that he was compelled to cooperate in the interview and that any information he provided would not be used against him in a criminal proceeding," the report said, adding that the warning "protects an employee from prosecution."

The former EPA chief of staff clashed with the watchdog office while at the agency.

Jackson had initially resisted doing the interview with IG agents. His lack of cooperation with the investigation as well as with a separate audit into whether he interfered with congressional testimony by an EPA science adviser sparked a rare "Seven Day Letter" from the inspector general rebuking him.

Jackson later agreed to do the interview. The IG office told lawmakers in a subsequent letter that they considered his cooperation complete, although far from "timely" as required under the Inspector General Act.

That letter identified the Dec. 18 date as when Jackson did the interview, which matches the date of a Jackson interview described in the report.

In an interview with E&E News at the time, Jackson declined to divulge what he told the IG office, only saying it involved "personnel issues."

"Just to be candid with you, I just wanted it to be over with," Jackson said (Greenwire, Jan. 28).