At a time of what paradoxically appears to be some real trust-building for the Environmental Protection Agency in Butte and Anaconda as well as big ethics issues for the agency's top boss, a high-level EPA official with a blot on his own record came to town last week — and seems to have won some hearts.
Who is EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's senior advisor Albert "Kell" Kelly? A former banker and a trusted friend of Pruitt's, Kelly is, like Pruitt himself, an Oklahoman.
Married with four children and six grandchildren, Kelly is a lawyer and former banker. But he's a banker with a past — and he represents Pruitt, who is facing mounting ethics accusations in Washington D.C.
Despite all that, many Superfund critics in both Butte and Anaconda were heartened that he showed up as well as impressed with his message.
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Anaconda community leader Jim Davison previously told The Montana Standard that the last time he could recall a top EPA official setting foot in Anaconda was during the early years of the George W. Bush administration.
Long-time Butte Superfund watchdog Fritz Daily said that for Butte, it goes back longer than that. He said a top EPA official hasn't visited the Mining City since the Bill Clinton administration.
The two towns' Superfund sites comprise the largest Superfund complex in the nation.
Gratitude for Kelly's attention, which appears to imply Pruitt's, seems to have tempered even some of the EPA's most vociferous critics in Butte and Anaconda, both cities saddled with 35 years of being on the National Priority List.
Meanwhile, just as Pruitt's trust with the American public appears to be significantly eroding, his appointee Doug Benevento, Region 8 administrator, appears to be enjoying a singular degree of trust from conservatives and liberals alike in the area.
Daily, an former Democratic legislator, told the Standard Friday he's "not a Pruitt guy" but believes both Kelly and Benevento are "sincere."
"I believe they care and they want to make things better," Daily said.
Conservative community leader Mick Ringsak, who was appointed by George W. Bush in 2000 as a regional director of the Small Business Administration, said that Benevento's popularity in Butte despite Pruitt's long list of alleged ethics violations "doesn't sound ironic at all."
Ringsak calls Benevento "truly heartfelt" and only had good things to say about Kelly.
"I think he's sincere," Ringsak said. "He has the administration's ear. There's an extremely strong personal connection there. When you're talking to Kelly, you're talking to Pruitt."
The word "sincere" came up a lot in Kelly's wake.
While community activist Sister Mary Jo McDonald said she has some reservations about Kelly, she, too, said, "I thought he was sincere."
Pruitt under fire
Pruitt has a mere 29-percent approval rating due to his growing list of alleged ethics violations, according to a poll released Thursday by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling.
Kelly is also no stranger to ethical issues.
Voluble, direct, and engaging in his manner, Kelly told The Montana Standard last week during an interview at the Standard's office that he was "very glad" the Standard "brought this up."
"I get this tagline, 'banker banned for life,'" he said.
He addressed his problems with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. publicly for the first time while talking to the Standard last week.
The FDIC banned Kelly for life from banking last year just a few months after he accepted his appointment with the EPA. Pruitt has said he knew his old friend and former banker was under fire with the FDIC at the time of his hire.
The EPA has also said Kelly disclosed the trouble he was in to the agency before he came on board.
According to the consent decree between Kelly and the FDIC, the former banker neither admitted nor denied the agency's allegation but agreed to pay a fine of $125,000.
Kelly's bank, SpiritBank of Tulsa, made several loans to Pruitt over the years.
"There are no questionable loans by my bank to the administrator. If you go back and look at any loans to the administrator, without going into his privacy, they were very solid," Kelly told The Montana Standard last week. "They were done in a very positive way and were paid off."
His problem with the FDIC involved a completely different transaction, he said.
"My problem with the FDIC emanated from one singular transaction in 2010. They didn't like it. The bank didn't lose any money. The bank made money. There was nothing untoward about it," Kelly said.
Kelly ran SpiritBank of Tulsa for 34 years. He went on to explain what happened.
"I ran out of money to oppose it (the FDIC's charge). When you run out of money, you have to take the best settlement you can. You can litigate against the federal government for a long time. There are two sides to the story, and mine rarely gets out there," Kelly said.
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Why the FDIC "didn't like it" Kelly didn't say. But the consent decree, signed by Kelly last summer, said the FDIC "has reason to believe that (Kelly) violated a law or regulation, by entering into an agreement pertaining to a loan by the bank without FDIC approval." The consent decree does not state when the alleged questionable transaction took place.
As for Pruitt, according to last week's poll, the many allegations of ethics violations against him — from his first-class airline travel to his taxpayer-funded security detail — have raised "very serious concerns" with 49 percent of those polled.
Kelly called the allegations against Pruitt "insulting and inane."
"It's like putting your life under a microscope," he said. "We were accused of a $70,000 bulletproof desk, but we got the desk from GSA (Government Services Administration) surplus."
According to various news sources, the EPA made requests under Pruitt's leadership for a $100,000-per-month private jet membership and $70,000 for furniture that included a bulletproof desk for an armed security guard.
The requests were denied.
Also controversial were raises the EPA gave to two staffers even after the White House denied the pay increases.
Kelly, who makes $171,000 a year, said he has not received any raises in the time he's been at the EPA. He also said the raises were not Pruitt's fault but the fault of the EPA's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson.
Jackson told media earlier this week that he was to blame for the raises. But also last week, national media outlets reported that an internal email shows Pruitt did have prior knowledge of the questionable raises, which he had denied.
Critics have also questioned Pruitt's air travel, including EPA staff allegedly working to find ways to fly Pruitt home to Oklahoma on weekends on the taxpayer dime.
Apparently referring to the $100,000-per-month private jet membership, Kelly told The Montana Standard, "It's tantamount to you saying, 'Wouldn't it be great not to have to go through commercial air?' Nothing came of that. I don't know if someone may have said it, but nothing came of it. Why is that a story?" he asked rhetorically. "It's not even close to the truth."
Trump has so far maintained support for Pruitt. More than any of Trump's other cabinet members, Pruitt is viewed by conservatives as having followed through on campaign promises by working to reduce regulation at the agency.
But the Inspector General is investigating the raises as well as some of Pruitt's other alleged violations.
"A number of things (in the press about Pruitt) are not accurate," Kelly insisted. He suggested sources in opposition are using the press to spread "negativity" about his old friend.
Kelly shrugged off the frequent criticism that Pruitt is too friendly with big oil.
"I'm sure coming from Oklahoma, he knows a lot of people in the oil business," he said.
Since Benevento took his place as the top dog of the region six months ago, he has been delivering much welcome news to Anaconda and Butte. Both have been looking at the EPA through the long lens of 35 years with a federal agency that critics say has been at best out of touch with the residents the cleanup impacts.
Benevento's many fans in Butte say he has brought forward energy, humility, a can-do spirit, and a willingness to listen. Some critics say he demonstrates what has been missing from EPA leadership in the past — he is a true public servant.
But most of all, he has delivered. With remarkable swiftness, Benevento has done what no one else within the EPA has been able to do before him: get an agreement with responsible party Atlantic Richfield Company for a deal that is now expected to bring closure to Butte's Superfund site.
Benevento announced during last week's visit that parts of Anaconda's Superfund site would begin delisting this year and the entire site would be removed from the National Priority List by 2025. Benevento said the move would lift the "stigma of Superfund" that Anaconda has suffered under for 35 years due to nearly 100 years of copper smelter emissions.
Benevento told Butte nearly two months ago that the Mining City would begin delisting in 2024. Butte's 35 years as a Superfund site are due to more than 100 years of historical mining and smelting.
Even Butte's possibly most vociferous Superfund critic, Montana Tech professor John Ray, said that with Benevento's ascension, he sees reason to hope for a better future.
"This ironic notion of 'trust us' from the government has always been treated cynically by me," Ray said Friday. "Who will guard us from the guardians? But there seems to be a new atmosphere of new cooperation and openness."
Longtime Anaconda government critic Rose Nyman judged Kelly as "talking the talk" but said of Benevento, "I was more confident with Doug. I felt his remarks were sincere. I think he really wants to end this agony."
But what Benevento hasn't yet brought — or talked about - are resources.
After the Trump administration proposed slashing the EPA's budget by 30 percent — including Superfund — the recent omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by Trump restored the EPA's budget for 2018 to previous-year levels.
Kelly said the EPA will spend the restored 30 percent — "And if you give me another 30 percent, I'll spend that too."
But whether additional resources will be allocated to Butte and Anaconda during the accelerated work schedule for both cities — and only one EPA project manager each to provide oversight to Atlantic Richfield's work — has not been addressed.
One good sign: Pruitt himself is still planning on visiting Butte in August, Kelly said.
When The Montana Standard asked Kelly if he thought there was irony involved in the EPA trying to rebuild trust with Butte and Anaconda at a time when Pruitt is under fire and Kelly has had his own problem, Benevento jumped in to answer the question himself.
"Trust us on what we're doing. Trust us on what you see," he said.
"I don't not work for the administration," Benevento said. "I work for the administration. We are busting it to try and eliminate that image (of collusion between Atlantic Richfield's parent company BP and the EPA).
"This isn't coming because I'm a great guy. It's because I'm getting direction from the top. I'm being told to rebuild trust."