WASHINGTON — It was supposed to be a town hall meeting where Iowa ranchers could ask questions directly of Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. But when the agency learned that anyone would be free to ask anything, they decided to script the questions themselves.
“My sincere apologies,” an E.P.A. official wrote to the rancher who would be moderating the event. “We cannot do open q&a from the crowd.” She then proposed several simple questions for him to ask Mr. Pruitt, including: “What has it been like to work with President Trump?”
Details about the December event, and dozens of other official appearances from Mr. Pruitt’s scandal-plagued first year at the E.P.A., have until now been hidden from public view as a result of an extraordinary effort by Mr. Pruitt and his staff to maintain strict secrecy about the bulk of his daily schedule.
But a new cache of emails offer a detailed look inside the agency’s aggressive efforts to conceal his activities as a public servant. The more than 10,000 documents, made public as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Sierra Club, show that the agency’s close control of Mr. Pruitt’s events is driven more by a desire to avoid tough questions from the public than by concerns about security, contradicting Mr. Pruitt’s longstanding defense of his secretiveness.
Time and again, the files show, decisions turn on limiting advance public knowledge of Mr. Pruitt’s appearances in order to control the message. The emails, many of which are communications with Mr. Pruitt’s schedulers, show an agency that divides people into “friendly and “unfriendly” camps and that, on one occasion — involving a secret visit to a Toyota plant last year — became so focused on not disclosing information that Mr. Pruitt’s corporate hosts expressed confusion about the trip.
“The security aspect is smoke and mirrors,” said Kevin Chmielewski, Mr. Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, who is one of several former E.P.A. officials who have said that they were fired or sidelined for disagreeing with Mr. Pruitt’s management practices. “He didn’t want anybody to question anything,” Mr. Chmielewski said, adding that Mr. Pruitt “just doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a public figure.”
Mr. Pruitt testified before Congress last month that Mr. Chmielewski had resigned.
Three other current and former agency officials, who asked not to be identified because they still work for the government, expressed similar views.
The E.P.A. did not respond to requests for comment about the documents, which detail Mr. Pruitt’s plans for travel and appearances nationwide. In the past, E.P.A. officials have said that Mr. Pruitt has faced an unprecedented number of death threats, which account for the size of his security force and the agency’s refusal to make public his daily schedule.
All politicians are attuned to image-building, of course, and employ staffs whose job is to control the environments in which they appear. Mr. Pruitt, though, has carried the practice to an extreme.
Breaking with all of his predecessors at the E.P.A. for the last 25 years, as well as other members of President Trump’s cabinet, he does not release a list of public speaking events and he discloses most official trips only after they are over. Mr. Pruitt doesn’t hold news conferences, and in one episode, journalists who learned of an event were ejected from the premises after an E.P.A. official threatened to call the police.
The E.P.A. also declined to make public Mr. Pruitt’s detailed calendar until the agency was sued by The New York Times and other organizations.
More recently, the agency moved to require that any documents related to Mr. Pruitt that are gathered as a result of Freedom of Information requests be provided to his political aides 48 hours in advance for an “awareness review” before they are made public, “to insure that leadership is aware of public disclosures,” a June email said.
Mr. Pruitt currently faces 11 investigations into his spending and management at the E.P.A., many of which stem from the appetite for secrecy. He is under investigation for first-class travel at taxpayer expense, his elaborate security detail and the installation at a cost of $43,000 of a soundproof booth for making telephone calls.
Separately, a New York Times investigation found that, in 2003 when he served as a legislator in Oklahoma, Mr. Pruitt bought a home in a transaction that involved two…