Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt has been under investigation almost since the day he was sworn in as the nation’s top environmental official. The latest controversy, surrounding his rental of a luxury Capitol Hill apartment connected to an energy industry lobbyist, has only intensified the scrutiny.
The story of the apartment rental began in Oklahoma when Pruitt became acquainted with a top industry lobbyist, Steven Hart, whose wife, Vicki, co-owns the D.C. apartment. When nominated to head the EPA, Pruitt used this connection to ask for a favor while searching for a place to live. In response, he got an apartment at a rate far below the market value.
Steven Hart is a go-to favorite for both lawmakers and regulators. His lobbying firm seeks to influence policymakers on issues that impact the energy and chemicals industries, as well as almost every other major industry sector. Given its proximity to the U.S. Capitol, Republican politicians have used Hart’s apartment for fundraising events.
In interviews with conservative media outlets on Tuesday, Pruitt said his opponents, by focusing on the ethics of renting an apartment connected to energy lobbyist, will “resort to anything” to stop his deregulatory agenda. “It’s toxic here in that regard,” said Pruitt, who has made it his mission as EPA administrator to weaken or eliminate regulations that protect the public and the environment from toxic pollution.
But Pruitt’s arrangement to rent an apartment linked to a powerful lobbyist couple is one of many ethical scandals surrounding the EPA head, and serves as a microcosm of how big money dominates Washington policy-making — especially in the Trump era, when billionaires have filled many of the top ranks of his government.
The lobbyist power couple
In 2017, Pruitt paid $6,100 over six months to the limited liability corporation condo co-owned by Vicki Hart. His daughter, McKenna Pruitt, who was a White House intern at the time, also lived at the apartment last summer.
Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, noted that the fact Pruitt’s daughter also used the apartment “casts doubt on whether he paid market value for the rooms.”
Even though Pruitt paid a $50-per-day rental rate, not a monthly rate, the apartment was not available to any other tenants during the period in 2017 that Pruitt had access to it.
Pruitt’s relationship with the lobbyist couple goes back years. Vicki and Steven Hart donated $4,366 to Pruitt’s campaigns for Oklahoma attorney general and his federal leadership political action committee. George Baker and Jack McMackin, both principals at Williams & Jensen — the lobbying firm where Steven is chairman — also donated to Pruitt’s Oklahoma Strong Leadership PAC.
Among the firm’s clients are major EPA-regulated energy companies, including ExxonMobil and Cheniere Energy. The firm’s website notes that Steven Hart has been named “one of Washington’s top lobbyists” by Washingtonian and The Hill.
Williams & Jensen also represented Enbridge Inc. in March 2017 when EPA signed off on the company’s proposed expansion of its Alberta Clipper line. The pipeline, also known as Line 67, allows Enbridge to transport up to 890,000 barrels of oil per day produced in the Canadian tar sands region across the border between Canada and North Dakota, terminating in Superior, Wisconsin.
Hart’s firm also lobbied the EPA in 2017 on behalf of Oklahoma Gas and Electric, a major coal-burning electric utility in Pruitt’s home state; Concho Resources, an oil and gas drilling company; and Cheniere Energy, the nation’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal developer.
As it happens, Pruitt’s most costly trip in 2017 was to Morocco in December where he lobbied the nation to import LNG from the United States. Pruitt’s personal expenses for the four-day trip totaled $17,631, including a $500 overnight stay in Paris on the way to Morocco. He also took a team of advisers and security with him to Morocco, which put the total cost of the trip at an estimated $40,000.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent a letter to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General on Tuesday questioning Pruitt’s living arrangements at the Capitol Hill apartment and highlighting Steven Hart’s representation of Cheniere Energy. “As you know, a significant purpose of Mr. Pruitt’s trip to Morocco last year was the promotion of LNG exports, an activity that does not fall within EPA’s jurisdiction,” Whitehouse wrote.
Aside from his work as an energy lobbyist, Steven Hart, who previously worked at the Labor Department, led the Trump transition team at the U.S. Department of Labor.
Three Republican politicians held fundraisers at the Capitol Hill condo while Pruitt was staying there: Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Jim Risch (R-ID), and Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI). Pruitt was out of town on the days of both the Risch and Huizenga fundraisers, but was in Washington, D.C. for at least three of Crapo’s fundraisers.
It wouldn’t be illegal for Pruitt to attend any of these fundraisers in his personal time, and the EPA told The Daily Beast that Pruitt was neither invited nor attended any of them.
But the politicians who held fundraisers at the condo certainly are familiar with both Pruitt and the kinds of regulations and policies he oversees.
Both Crapo and Risch voted for Pruitt’s confirmation before the Senate, and both signed a letter to Trump urging the administration to pull out of the Paris climate agreement — a top priority for Pruitt during his first few months at the EPA.
Crapo also served on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — which is charged with overseeing the EPA — from 2009 to 2017.
Both Crapo and Risch have received significant contributions from the fossil fuel industry throughout their political careers. For the last three election cycles, Crapo received $137,006 from oil, gas, and coal, while Risch received $149,530. Risch’s top donor for both the 2016 and 2018 election cycle was Koch Industries, which donated $67,500 to his PACs. Risch also received $18,000 from Murray Energy — a coal company headed by Bob Murray, an ardent Trump supporter — in 2016.
Unlike Crapo and Risch, Huizenga doesn’t get much of his political money from fossil fuels; his largest donors are from the banking, investment, and real estate industry. Still, he’s not exactly an environmental bulwark in Congress: He voted to cut the EPA’s budget by 24 percent, and sponsored a resolution that repealed a rule requiring oil and gas companies to disclose payments to foreign governments.
An ethical crisis
Pruitt has been surrounded by scandal practically since the start of his EPA tenure, from his friendly relationship with industry to his penchant for using taxpayer funds to travel in first-class on domestic flights.
But the apartment controversy shows just how deeply Pruitt’s personal interests are intertwined with the very industries that he is charged with regulating. Even if Pruitt wasn’t explicitly breaking the law with his housing deal, he’s muddying the waters in a way that makes it difficult to know whether he’s capable of acting as an impartial arbiter of environmental policies.
It’s that ethical quandary that has led politicians on both sides of the aisle to call for Pruitt’s resignation in the wake of the condo scandal. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) said Tuesday that Pruitt’s “corruption scandals are an embarrassment to the Administration.”