What started as a scandal over first class travel, the media’s focus on Scott Pruitt has morphed into an investigation of his personal living arrangements in D.C. that could end poorly for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator.
Pruitt came under fire earlier this year for spending more than $100,000 on first class airline travel, which the EPA said were due to security concerns. The administrator also took fire for a costly $120,000 trip to Italy for the G7 summit, but that was only the beginning of the media scrutiny.
The White House is already investigating Pruitt’s living arrangements after a slew of media reports indicated the former Oklahoma Attorney General rented a room from a D.C. power couple for $50 a night. There are already reports White House chief of staff John Kelly wanted to relieve Pruitt of duty.
That was before the Atlantic revealed on Tuesday that Pruitt used a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to give two staffers raises that were reportedly rejected by White House officials. While seemingly not illegal, Pruitt’s circumvention raised the ire of EPA staffers and White House officials.
Pruitt’s two-bedroom unit in the Capitol Hill condo is partially owned by the wife of J. Steven Hart of the firm Williams & Jensen. Pruitt only paid for nights he used the room, paying a total of $6,100 for the roughly six months he lived there, Bloomberg reported.
EPA’s chief ethics counsel Justina Fugh told Bloomberg “the arrangement wasn’t an ethics issue because Pruitt paid rent,” and EPA released a memo from the agency’s lead ethics officer on the lease.
“As EPA career ethics officials stated in a memo, Administrator Pruitt’s housing arrangement for both himself and family was not a gift and the lease was consistent with federal ethics regulations,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement.
However, the Environmental Integrity Project, the group behind many of the stories on Pruitt’s travel, argued Pruitt’s paying $50 in rent may violate a ban on federal employees taking gifts valued at more than $20. The group Public Citizen asked EPA’s Office of Inspector General to investigate.
NYT columnist Paul Krugman went as far as to argue Pruitt’s paying for a place to sleep constitutes a bribe.
Thinking some more about this Pruitt story. Kudos to Bloomberg for getting the facts; but I wish reporters wouldn’t lump de facto bribes from lobbyists with padded expense accounts, like unnecessary first-class travel. Corruption is a much bigger deal 1/ https://t.co/cVaDP3Oap4
— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) March 30, 2018
Krugman, however, probably represents the extreme in this case. It’s not really clear how Pruitt’s paying for a room at a rate in the range of normal for that area of D.C. constitutes a bribe.
“He paid a fair price for what amounts to just a room,” Fugh told Bloomberg. “So I don’t even think that the fact that the house is owned by a person whose job is to be a lobbyist causes us concern.”
The New York Times reported on Monday Pruitt rented the condo from Hart’s wife when EPA approved an environmental permit for a pipeline project by Enbridge, which hired Williams & Jensen.
Again, Pruitt critics argued that “[e]ven if no specific favors were asked for or granted, it can create an appearance of a conflict,” according to NYT.
“Entering into this arrangement causes a reasonable person to question the integrity of the E.P.A. decision,” Don Fox, former general counsel for the Office of Government Ethics under Obama and Bush, told NYT.
However, lobbying disclosures presented by NYT don’t show Williams & Jensen actually lobbying EPA on behalf of clients. The firm said it did not intervene with EPA decisions for its clients.
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