Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

This story was updated on April 9 at 4:26 p.m. ET

An email that suggests Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt personally signed off on a controversial pay raise for a favored aide last month is roiling the agency.

In the last few days, top staffers became aware of an email exchange between one of two aides who received such a raise and the agency’s human resources division. In mid-March, Sarah Greenwalt, senior counsel to the administrator, wrote to HR in an attempt to confirm that her pay raise of $56,765 was being processed. Greenwalt “definitively stated that Pruitt approves and was supportive of her getting a raise,” according to an administration official who has seen the email chain.

A second administration official confirmed the exchange. The email “essentially says, ‘The administrator said that I should get this raise,’” the official told me. Both spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private correspondence.

“Administrator Pruitt had zero knowledge of the amount of the raises, nor the process by which they transpired,” Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, said in a statement. “These kind of personnel actions are handled by myself, EPA’s HR officials and PPO. These kind of personnel actions are handled by EPA’s HR officials, PPO and me.  Any communications claiming otherwise are simply inaccurate.”

The email began floating around the agency’s top ranks after the EPA’s Inspector General expanded its inquiry into Pruitt’s hiring practices to include the raises, according to the two administration officials. In early April, as first reported by The Atlantic, Pruitt requested hefty salary bumps for Greenwalt and his director of scheduling, Millan Hupp. When the White House refused to sign off on the raises—$56,765 and $28,130, respectively—Pruitt used an obscure hiring authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to grant them anyway. The provision, which allows the EPA’s administrator to appoint up to 30 staffers without White House or congressional approval, was intended to help the agency bring on experts and staff up especially-stressed offices. Greenwalt and Hupp’s raises went into effect on April 1, according to HR documents obtained by The Atlantic.

Now, the agency’s IG is probing whether Pruitt abused that hiring authority. On Wednesday, Pruitt was pressed by Fox News’s Ed Henry to respond to The Atlantic’s report, but denied any knowledge of the episode. “You didn’t know they got these pay raises?” Henry asked. “I didn’t know they got the pay raises until yesterday,” Pruitt responded.

“My jaw dropped when he said that,” said the first administration official. The perception that Pruitt had gone on TV and lied, the official said, was what really scared people inside the agency.

After the interview, top aides, including Jackson, began corralling files that appeared to contradict Pruitt’s statements. The two administration officials described it as a way of “getting ahead” of the IG’s investigation. Greenwalt’s email, however, has proved the most troubling, according to both administration officials. “It’s an ‘oh, shit’ moment that they’re trying to figure out before the IG finds the email,” said one. “Because it’ll be damn near impossible to have Sarah explain her way out of it.”

On Monday, two Democratic members of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, Tom Carper and Sheldon Whitehouse, sent a letter to Pruitt citing The Atlantic’s previous reporting and the Fox News interview, and asking him to turn over all relevant documents and communications that might illuminate “the degree to which you were aware of, supported, directed or were otherwise involved in the decision to award Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp raises” by April 20.

The scrambling comes as EPA officials are trying to tamp down the seemingly endless set of controversies plaguing the agency. On Monday, The New York Times reported that the government’s top ethics official had sent a letter to the agency urging ethics staffers to take “appropriate actions to address any violations.” The letter specifically addressed Pruitt’s rental of a condo connected to an energy lobbyist for just $50 a night. It also touched on Pruitt’s frequent trips home to Oklahoma on the taxpayers’ dime. Those flights “do raise concerns about whether the administrator is using his public office for personal gain in violation of ethics rules,” wrote David Apol, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics.

All of which has made for a tense workplace in the last week, according to multiple EPA officials. Despite President Trump’s tweet on Saturday affirming his support for Pruitt, officials said that Pruitt’s future—and thus, their own—appears tenuous. Several officials are seeking transfer to other agencies; as one official put it, “It’s been very emotionally draining. The stress is unsustainable.”

Added to that is what one official called the “gloating” of top political appointees, who feel that Pruitt, given Trump’s vocal support, is now “bulletproof.” On Friday, according to an official who witnessed the exchange, a small group of staffers, including Jackson, Greenwalt, and Hupp, joked that Pruitt, like Trump, “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone” and “get away with it.”

But the discovery of Greenwalt’s email exchange may upset that calculus. “One moment, people are feeling really confident,” said the official who witnessed the exchange. “And the next, they’re desperate to keep this email hush-hush.”

Pruitt meets with President Trump Monday at 2:45 p.m. ET in the Oval Office to discuss renewable fuels such as ethanol, according to a schedule shared with The Atlantic.

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