The Man Behind Pruitt's Costly Security Once Chased MobstersBy
‘Nino’ Perrotta has overseen major increase in EPA security
Agency says moves necessary to protect EPA chief amid threats
The man behind EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s controversial security upgrades -- from the biometric locks in his office to his round-the-clock bodyguards -- is a hard-charging former Secret Service agent who says he used to investigate loan sharks and mobsters.
Pasquale Perrotta describes himself as "misunderstood by most" but fiercely loyal and "always on."
"I always got results," Perrotta, 50, wrote in his self-published memoir, "Dual Mission." "I always found the bad guy. I always made consequential investigations and arrests."
The son of Italian immigrants who goes by "Nino," Perrotta got the Environmental Protection Agency job protecting Pruitt last year, after the previous lead agent questioned some security decisions and was reassigned, according to a person familiar with the change who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters. But Perrotta, who has worked for the agency for 14 years, has had no such qualms.
"Perrotta is at the center of these decisions to spend money in ridiculous ways," said Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight, a government watchdog group that has been probing the EPA’s security decisions. "The administrator has gone out of his way to pick someone to lead his detail who will say ‘yes’ to everything and give him the entourage he apparently dreamed of."
Security spending at the EPA -- as well as Perrotta’s role in it -- is drawing scrutiny amid revelations about Pruitt’s unorthodox rental of a Capitol Hill condo, the administrator’s frequent flights to his home state of Oklahoma and raises for two aides over White House objections. The Associated Press reported total security costs have ballooned to nearly $3 million, including the pay of protective detail as well as their travel expenses.
The EPA’s steps to beef up security under Pruitt include sweeping the administrator’s office for hidden listening devices, installing biometric locks at the site and the construction of a soundproof phone booth at an installed cost of nearly $43,000.
Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Tom Carper of Delaware formally asked for "bipartisan oversight hearings into the extent and justification of security spending" on Tuesday.
Separately, the pair told Pruitt in a letter last month they are concerned Perrotta "may have used his position at the agency to influence the award of EPA contracts to a person or company in which he has a financial interest."
At issue is an EPA security move that may have enriched one of Perrotta’s business partners: Edwin Steinmetz, the vice president of technical surveillance countermeasures at Perrotta’s Maryland-based company Sequoia Security Group Inc. Perrotta is the security firm’s principal, and the EPA’s $3,000 contract to search for bugs was awarded to Edwin Steinmetz Associates.
Perrotta did not respond to messages seeking comment.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said similar security sweeps were conducted for recent Democratic administrators. Career officials approved the biometric locks, which are used for other offices within the EPA, he said.
President Donald Trump brushed concerns aside on Saturday, proclaiming on Twitter that "while security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA."
There is no indication Perrotta and Pruitt knew each other before the administrator’s arrival in Washington, D.C. last year. Perrotta has helped protect Democratic and Republican EPA leaders going back to Stephen Johnson, an agency chief under President George W. Bush.
Perrotta had a colorful history in law enforcement before joining the EPA. He began as an investigator for the New York mayor in 1993, following a three-year stint as an Army counterintelligence officer, according to an online bio. He cut his teeth in gambling and loan-shark investigations before joining the Secret Service and doing tours of duty in Italy, Romania and Bulgaria.
Perrotta also helped build a racketeering case against John A. "Junior" Gotti, investigated financial crimes for the Secret Service and made security preparations for presidents traveling overseas while he was stationed in Italy. Gotti, the onetime boss of the Gambino crime family, repeatedly evaded conviction on racketeering charges.
The title of his book "Dual Mission" evokes the protective and investigative roles of the Secret Service. In the memoir, Perrotta describes a lifelong goal of "being a ‘good guy’ fighting the Mafia and making my dreams of being a federal agent an eventual reality."
Simultaneously affable and determined, Perrotta describes being misunderstood by fellow agents, supervisors, family and friends as someone who was filled with unchecked and oft-misdirected vigor. "I was, and remain, loyal," he wrote. "My loyalty to friends and mission was never questioned."
At the EPA, Perrotta played a critical role in the agency’s decision to guard Pruitt 24 hours a day -- a major shift from the typical approach giving administrators only "door-to-door" protection. Perrotta conducted the broad threat assessment that justified the shift to full-time security protection, arguing that door-to-door coverage had always been inadequate for EPA administrators -- but especially Pruitt, whose history challenging the agency he now leads and current efforts to roll back environmental regulations have made him a top target.
Now, at least 19 agents are required for the EPA to guard Pruitt day and night, though the number may be higher depending on travel and other needs. For instance, 32 agents participated in Pruitt’s security detail over six weeks, according to schedules obtained by Whitehouse. To help fill in the gaps, the EPA may have reassigned agency staff from enforcement to Pruitt’s protective detail, Whitehouse suggested in a March 20 letter to the agency’s inspector general.
Five EPA officials who questioned the steep climb in security protection were reassigned or demoted, the New York Times reported Friday. That includes the previous head of Pruitt’s security team, Eric Weese, who refused Pruitt’s request to use lights and sirens on a government vehicle to swiftly navigate Washington traffic en route to a dinner.
Perrotta has said the security moves, including Pruitt’s reliance on first-class airfare, were necessary because of vulgar encounters and threats from the public. Perrotta argued the less-populated, smaller quarters of first-class provide a buffer between Pruitt and the public, allowing special agents to quickly respond to any possible threats.
"According to EPA’s assistant inspector general, Scott Pruitt has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats against him, and security decisions are made by EPA’s protective service detail," Wilcox said by email. "Americans should all agree that members of the president’s cabinet should be kept safe from these violent threats."
Some lawmakers aren’t buying the justifications. Carper and Whitehouse said in a letter Tuesday that documents provided by EPA officials "suggest the agency has relied on questionable ‘threats’ to the administrator, including reports of non-violent protests, negative feedback about the administrator’s actions or other First Amendment-protected activity, to justify millions of dollars in additional security spending."
EPA intelligence officials have repeatedly tried to tell senior agency leadership that the protective service detail had "inappropriately mischaracterized" the threat against Pruitt, according to a February 2018 memo obtained by the senators. The EPA’s Office of Homeland Security Intelligence Team said in that document it hasn’t identified "any specific credible direct threat" targeting the administrator.
Perrotta’s long law enforcement history suggests he is well acquainted with dealing with threats. His book recounts efforts to cultivate confidential informants and hide his handgun while being frisked by "menacing bouncers" guarding the entrance to a Bulgarian nightclub.
Sometimes, the perils were less obvious. In a show of confidence in front of his target at that club, Perrotta writes, he took a swig of whiskey that "tasted like jet fuel" and struggled to regain his equilibrium while convincing the fugitive to meet him at a statue the next day. Perrotta said the gambit worked -- but not without some pain.
"I gulped the remaining contents in one stroke and immediately felt a burning sensation in my stomach," Perrotta wrote. "I could feel my cheeks turn red and my body temperature rise. I felt slightly nauseated. What was I thinking drinking that damn whiskey so fast?"