Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing a mounting ethics crisis, from revelations that he rented a luxury Capitol Hill condo from a lobbyist couple for $50 a night to allegations that he reassigned senior staff who questioned his spending habits at the agency.
This week, as a fuller picture of the lobbyist-linked condo deal has emerged, both Democrat and Republican politicians have called for Pruitt to resign as administrator. But even as new details continue to emerge about Pruitt’s conduct, several key questions remain unanswered.
How involved was Steven Hart with Pruitt’s condo deal?
When ABC News initially broke the story of Pruitt’s $50 a night rental deal, the condo was linked to its co-owner, Vicki Hart. Vicki Hart is a healthcare lobbyist, while her husband, J. Steven Hart, is the chairman of Williams & Jensen — a lobbying firm that represents, among other clients, energy companies like Enbridge and Exxon.
Steven initially claimed to have no ownership claims to the condo, telling ABC News that his wife was co-owner with an unnamed second party. But a copy of the lease agreement, obtained by the Associated Press, revealed that Steven’s name — not Vicki’s — was originally listed as Pruitt’s landlord.
Steven’s name was reportedly crossed out, with Vicki’s name handwritten in its place. But the copy of the lease raises questions about how involved Steven was with the arrangement — something that he had previously tried to distance himself from.
Odd that the landlord on the lease is a crossed out "S̶t̶e̶v̶e̶" Hart, replaced by "Vicki" Hart. Energy lobbyist Steve Hart previously said “I have no ownership interest.” https://t.co/NOfcEFDkmW pic.twitter.com/ucP7gRoUH5
— Phil McKenna (@mckennapr) April 5, 2018
If Steven were the initial landlord, that suggests that Pruitt might have forged the initial rental deal through him — which could spell trouble for Pruitt, given that executive branch employees are required to consider whether accepting a gift from a personal friend creates the appearance of impartiality.
It’s much more difficult for Pruitt to argue that there are no questions of impartiality if the original deal was forged with an energy industry lobbyist with business before the EPA, instead of a health industry lobbyist with no business before the agency.
Was Pruitt involved in any EPA work related to clients represented by Hart’s lobbying firm?
Both Pruitt and Hart firmly deny that the rental agreement had any impact on work at the EPA, with Pruitt going so far as to claim that Hart had no clients with business before the EPA.
But that claim isn’t true. Williams & Jensen, as a firm, represented energy companies like Enbridge and Exxon in 2017, at the same time that the EPA was dealing with issues related to pipelines and the Clean Power Plan. And Williams & Jensen also represents Cheniere Energy, the only company in the United States to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) overseas.
Hart himself was also involved on several client accounts with business directly before the EPA — including lobbying on behalf of Owens-Illinois, a glass bottle manufacturer that, in 2017, settled violations of the Clean Air Act with the EPA.
In December, Pruitt made headlines for his decision to head to Morocco to promote U.S. LNG exports — a trip that seems even more questionable given that Cheniere Energy is the only U.S. company with the infrastructure in place to benefit from an increase in the export of liquefied natural gas. It’s unclear whether Steven was involved in the decision to travel to Morocco, or if Williams & Jensen had anything to do with the trip. But it does raise questions about whether any of Pruitt’s work at the EPA was influenced — explicitly or otherwise — by his relationship with Steven Hart.
What did the White House know and when?
According to the Daily Beast, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was blindsided by revelations about Pruitt’s condo deal and a subsequent story from the Atlantic detailing how Pruitt had gone around the White House to approve significant raises for two of his closest political aides.
But a story published on Thursday by InsideEPA suggests that the deluge of information about Pruitt’s scandals has actually come from a source very close to Kelly: His former senior aide Rob Porter, who resigned from the White House in February after allegations of domestic abuse from two former wives became public.
Porter, InsideEPA reported, leaked information about Pruitt in retaliation against Samantha Dravis, a former girlfriend of Porter’s who also served as a top aide to Pruitt. Dravis — who announced on Thursday that she would be resigning from the EPA — reportedly was the one who told White House officials about Porter’s history of domestic abuse.
But if Rob Porter is the source of the condo leaks, it’s difficult to assume that Kelly or others in the White House weren’t aware of Pruitt’s ethical transgressions well before ABC News broke the condo story on March 30.
The EPA also issued a memo that same day saying that Pruitt’s condo deal didn’t violate federal ethics rules, though Kevin Minoli, who signed the memo, has since suggested that he didn’t have all the necessary information before making that designation.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said during a press briefing on Wednesday that the White House was “reviewing” issues related to Pruitt’s rental agreement — but how long has the White House actually known about the condo deal?
Did Pruitt reassign four senior EPA officials as retaliation for challenging his authority?
The condo scandal isn’t the only ethical issue dogging Pruitt this week. On Thursday, the New York Times published a report detailing how five EPA employees — four of them in senior positions — were either reassigned or placed on leave after questioning Pruitt’s spending and management habits.
According to the New York Times, Kevin Chmielewski, a Trump administration political appointee, was placed on administrative leave without pay after raising concerns about Pruitt’s habits to the White house personnel office, including Pruitt’s plans to spend $70,000 to replace two desks in his office.
The EPA denied that the reassignments were retaliation for employees voicing concerns about Pruitt. But if the reassignments were related to EPA employees’ concerns about Pruitt’s mismanagement, then those reassignments would be illegal under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
This Act prohibits the government from taking action against employees who disclose information that they feel reasonably shows evidence of “gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority.”
If Pruitt reassigned these employees because they raised concerns about his spending or management, that’s more than just ethically questionable — it would be illegal.
Did Pruitt know about the raises given to two top political aides?
Amid stories of sweetheart condo deals and potentially illegal staff reassignments, the Atlantic also broke news that Pruitt had gone around the White House to issue significant raises to two of his top political aides.
To do so, Pruitt used a little-known provision of the Safe Water Drinking Act, which gives the EPA administrator authority to hire up to 30 people to the EPA — normally, that power is used to find specialists in a particular field, but Pruitt reportedly used it to give two staffers pay increases of $56,000 and $28,000.
In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Pruitt denied having any knowledge of the pay increases, telling reporter Ed Henry that his staff had signed off on the raises.
But the Safe Water Drinking Act provision used to give the staffers pay increases specifically delegates that power to the EPA administrator, not staff, meaning that Pruitt either signed off on the raises (or delegated them), or the raises were illegal — neither of which is a good look for the administrator.
What’s next for Scott Pruitt?
Despite calls for Pruitt’s resignation from a growing number of legislators, Pruitt’s job appears to be safe — for now. On Friday morning, President Trump tweeted that Pruitt was “doing a great job” and “is TOTALLY under siege.”
Do you believe that the Fake News Media is pushing hard on a story that I am going to replace A.G. Jeff Sessions with EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, who is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege? Do people really believe this stuff? So much of the media is dishonest and corrupt!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 6, 2018
But if the last week has been any indication, the pressure on Pruitt isn’t likely to let up any time soon. Whether or not he keeps his job likely depends on what scandals are still waiting in the wings for their grand reveal — and whether, ultimately, Trump decides his EPA administrator is more dishonest and corrupt than the media asking the questions.