News of Scott Pruitt’s ‘quid pro quo’ condo deal raises questions about criminal law violations

EPA chief got a "sweetheart deal" from a lobbyist with business before the agency.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Road to Majority Policy Conference, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, on June 8, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Road to Majority Policy Conference, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, on June 8, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

New revelations have emerged about Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s relationship with the energy lobbyist tied to the sweetheart D.C. condo deal Pruitt got last year. The news provides “concrete evidence” of wrongdoing some say and raises questions about whether Pruitt has violated not only ethics law, but criminal law.

According to a Sunday night report by the New York Times, the EPA’s chief of staff discussed hiring a friend of the lobbyist family that owned the Capitol Hill condominium that Pruitt rented for only $50-a-night in 2017. This took place during the same time that Pruitt was staying in the condo and contradicts statements previously made by the administrator during a Fox News interview on April 4 in which he said the lobbyist “has no business before this agency.”

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In response to the New York Times article, Norm Eisen, former White House ethics czar under the Obama administration, said in a tweet that Pruitt’s relationship with lobbyist Steven Hart and Hart’s wife — the owner of the condo — is looking not only like an ethics violation but a violation of a criminal statute prohibiting government officials from engaging in quid pro quo. In the case of Pruitt, the quid pro quo would be the exchange of the below-market rate on the condo for political favors.

Emails obtained by the Sierra Club, as part of a lawsuit filed against the EPA, and reviewed by the New York Times show numerous communications between Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, and lobbyist Stephen Hart. The emails appear to show that Hart tried to guide and influence EPA decisions at the same time that Pruitt was renting the condo below market rate — efforts Hart and Pruitt had earlier denied.

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According to the emails, Hart also contacted Pruitt’s staff about refrigerant chemicals on behalf of his client Coca-Cola and the Paris climate agreement on behalf of international bank HSBC, another one of Hart’s clients.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told the New York Times that the revelations included in the emails show an inappropriate relationship between Pruitt and his landlords. “We now have concrete evidence that Scott Pruitt offered to use taxpayer resources to do favors for the lobbyist who gave him a sweetheart deal on a D.C. condo,” Brune said.

Last August, Hart also submitted three candidates to the EPA for the agency’s Science Advisory Board. The candidates were suggested by another Hart client, Dennis Treacy, president of Smithfield Foundation, the pork company’s philanthropic arm.

In a statement to the New York Times, Hart said his wife’s status as Pruitt’s landlord had no bearing on his relationship with the EPA and that he never received any special treatment from Pruitt or had any “undue influence” over the EPA.

The EPA had not responded to a request for comment by ThinkProgress about the emails between Hart and agency staff at the time this article was published.

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An EPA employees union that has been fighting Pruitt’s attempts to downsize the agency chimed in on the alleged corruption. The American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents EPA employees in the Great Lakes region, highlighted the Sierra Club emails, noting that Hart tried to “guide” and “influence” EPA decisions.

And in another potential ethics violation, Politico reported Sunday that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is reviewing claims that Pruitt retaliated against a handful of EPA employees who pushed back against his spending and management.

At least six current and former agency officials were reportedly fired or reassigned to new jobs, allegedly for questioning Pruitt’s spending on security protection and his other spending and practices. The Office of Special Counsel is currently interviewing some of those employees, Politico reported.

Over the past several months — since Scott Pruitt-related scandals began surfacing on an almost daily basis — President Trump, however, has repeatedly offered his support of the EPA administrator and demonstrated a willingness to look the other way at the scandals that have rocked the agency.

As recently as June 8, Trump said Pruitt “is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA.” Administration observers surmise Pruitt remains in his job thanks to Trump’s admiration of Pruitt’s commitment to gutting the agency he leads. “I mean, we’re setting records,” Trump said earlier this month, probably in reference to the number of EPA rules Pruitt has sought to roll back.