Condo deal lobbyist pushed client’s nominees for EPA science board to Pruitt

Steven Hart's lobbying went beyond initial disclosures.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt (C) and EPA CFO Holly Greaves (R) arrive before testifying to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Environment Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt (C) and EPA CFO Holly Greaves (R) arrive before testifying to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Environment Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The prominent energy lobbyist J. Steven Hart — whose wife gave Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt a sweetheart condo deal last year — wrote Pruitt last August recommending candidates for key positions within the agency. This is despite both men previously claiming Hart had never lobbied the EPA around the time of Pruitt’s condo stay.

A newly-surfaced letter published by the New York Times Tuesday night reveals Hart encouraged Pruitt to name certain candidates to the EPA Science Advisory Board. Established by Congress in 1978, the group is one of 22 EPA advisory boards and is traditionally composed of independent scientists chosen by the EPA head to provide advice and input on environmental issues. Members are meant to be balanced in their views and distanced from partisan politics. There are approximately 45 scientists on the board.

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In an August 10, 2017 letter to Pruitt, Hart highlighted candidates proposed by a former Smithfield Foods Inc executive who now heads the Smithfield Foundation. Smithfield, a meat-processing company headquartered in Virginia, is a client of Williams & Jensen, the law and lobbying firm where Hart worked until he resigned Friday, April 20.

“I wanted to highlight three candidates for the Science Advisory Board, who were nominated by our client, Dennis Treacy, the President of the Smithfield Foundation,” Hart wrote. “Each of the nominees would bring a unique perspective to the Board and its work, with all three engaged in key issues facing the EPA.”

“All three welcome the opportunity for the EPA to consider their nominations,” Hart went on. “Each nominee is a resident of Virginia, which would facilitate their active engagement and participation with the SAB.”

An EPA spokesperson told the New York Times none of the individuals named by Hart were appointed to the Science Advisory Board.

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Both Hart and Pruitt claimed last month that the lobbyist never lobbied the EPA during Pruitt’s tenure after the nature of their relationship came under increased scrutiny.

Pruitt rented a condo from Hart’s wife, Vicki, for a mere $50 a night to be paid only when the administrator used the room — an unusual arrangement in a city with staggering rental prices. Bloomberg has calculated Pruitt paid $6,100 over the course of six months in 2017 for the condo.

Pruitt is currently the subject of 11 ongoing federal investigations, many of which center on his spending habits while in office. A sound-proof phone booth installed in Pruitt’s office cost upwards of $43,000 and intensive security measures have cost several million dollars.

Pruitt’s relationship with Hart has come under particular scrutiny. Last month, Williams & Jensen disclosed that Hart had in fact lobbied the EPA during Pruitt’s leadership despite denials. Hart reportedly lobbied for Smithfield Foods, whose recommendations he touts in his August letter, and which paid Williams & Jensen $70,000 in the first quarter of 2017.

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According to the disclosure, Hart lobbied on issues “relating to support for EPA Chesapeake Bay Programs”, a reference to President Trump’s plans to cut a clean-up program in the Chesapeake Bay. In 1997, Smithfield was fined $12 million for illegally disposing of hog waste into waterways leading to the Bay.

Hart resigned from William & Jensen two weeks ago, the same day as his lobbying disclosure. The letter published Tuesday reveals that Hart’s efforts to influence Pruitt and EPA policy extended to official appointments suggested by his clients.

Over the past year concerns have been raised about Pruitt’s favoring industry over science at the EPA.

Pruitt is already facing an investigation from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) over plans to ban scientists from the EPA’s federal advisory committees who have received grants from the agency. Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern that Pruitt is filling committees with industry-backed members loyal to oil and gas interests, among others.

Last October, Pruitt overhauled the EPA’s science advisory boards, removing a number of scientists from institutions like Harvard and the University of Washington. Environmental advocates and scientists have since taken legal action arguing Pruitt is replacing these experts with industry insiders in line with the Trump administration’s agenda.

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“EPA appointed new advisory committee members to replace members removed pursuant to the directive,” wrote the environmental legal group Earthjustice in a complaint last December. “Many of the replacement appointees work directly for industries regulated by EPA or receive  financial support from such industries.”

Pruitt’s troubles are unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Sources told the New York Times on Tuesday that the official is seeking to establish a legal defense fund in light of mounting investigations and high-level departures within the agency.

Also on Tuesday the Washington Post reported that a former Comcast lobbyist and longtime friend of Pruitt’s, Richard Smotkin, helped arrange a controversial trip to Morocco last year. The December 2017 trip cost exceeded $100,000 in expenses.