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, according to three current and former EPA officials.
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, according to three current and former agency officials. 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.