FILE - In this May 16, 2018, file phot, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington. A senior aide wrapped up in the ethics investigations of Pruitt has abruptly resigned. Pruitt announced the departure of aide Millan Hupp in an email on June 6. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

EPA head laughs off Chick-fil-A questions; senior aide quits

June 06, 2018 - 4:53 pm
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt laughed off questions Wednesday about whether he used his office to try to help his wife get a "business opportunity" with Chick-fil-A, while a close aide abruptly resigned amid new ethics allegations against her boss.

Pruitt said in a statement that his scheduler, Millan Hupp, had resigned. It came two days after Democratic lawmakers made public her testimony to a House oversight panel that Pruitt had her do personal errands for him, including inquiring about buying a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel.

Despite the mounting scandals, President Donald Trump continues to stand by Pruitt and lavished praise on him at a hurricane-preparedness briefing attended by Cabinet secretaries and agency heads.

"EPA is doing really, really well," Trump told Pruitt on Wednesday. "And you know, somebody has to say that about you a little bit. You know that, Scott. But you have done — I tell you, the EPA is doing so well. ... And people are really impressed with the job that's being done at the EPA. Thank you very much, Scott."

Pruitt is the subject of numerous ongoing federal ethics investigations over his lavish spending on travel and security, his dealings with subordinates and other matters.

The 26-year-old Hupp, described by former staffers as one of Pruitt's closest and most loyal staffers, told the House panel that Pruitt had her ask about getting a mattress from the Trump International Hotel.

Pruitt also directed Hupp, an Oklahoman like her boss, to book a personal trip to the Rose Bowl for him and search for housing for him in the Washington area, she told the investigators.

Federal ethics codes prohibit having staffers conduct personal errands and bar officials from using their position for private gain.

Pruitt's statement called Hupp "a valued member of the EPA team." The EPA gave no reason for her departure.

Pruitt, in appearances before congressional panels this spring, has repeatedly blamed subordinates for his alleged ethical lapses. Three other senior Pruitt staffers resigned earlier this spring.

Earlier Wednesday, Pruitt laughed when asked about new reports that he used his position as an agency head to try to get a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife.

"I mean, look, my wife is an entrepreneur herself. I love, she loves, we love Chick-fil-A as a franchise of faith," he told a reporter for Nexstar Media Group, which owns local television stations around the country. He said more are needed in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and around the country.

The reporter posted a video of the interview on Twitter.

They were his first comments since recently released EPA emails revealed that he asked another top aide at EPA to inquire about a "business opportunity" with the fast-food company. A former EPA deputy chief of staff, Kevin Chmielewski, said Pruitt had been seeking a Chick-fil-A franchise for his family.

Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, suggested the unending stream of news reports about him and new federal investigations were political.

"I just think that with great change comes, you know, I think, opposition," he said.

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Follow Associated Press environmental writer Ellen Knickmeyer at http://twitter.com/KnickmeyerEllen and investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck

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