From pipeline deals and GOP fundraisers to private jets and pay raises, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s series of scandals has escalated in the past 24 hours.
Pruitt is not a man untouched by scandal. Since coming to the EPA in February of 2017, he has made headlines for expensive first-class travel, secretive private phone booths, and a close relationship with the industries he is charged to regulate.
And on Monday — the same day that Pruitt announced the EPA would be rolling back fuel efficiency and emissions standards for new cars — the cacophony of scandal surrounding Pruitt reached new heights, with five separate stories connecting the EPA administrator to ethically-questionable dealings.
Here’s a guide to Pruitt’s very bad news cycle.
The condo scandal deepens
Late last week, ABC News broke the story that Pruitt had rented a luxury condo in D.C. from an energy industry lobbyist for $50 a night — an arrangement, it later was revealed, that allowed Pruitt to only pay for nights where he slept in the condo, and also allowed his daughter to live there while she interned for the White House last summer. The rate Pruitt paid is widely seen as well-below market value in the neighborhood for two people.
The fact that the condo was rented at such a low rate means the agreement appears to be a gift to Pruitt from the lobbyist couple that owns the condo. Government ethics rules allow executive branch employees to accept outside gifts only if the gift is motivated solely by a personal relationship and not the official’s position — but the rules also caution that “it is never inappropriate and frequently prudent for an employee to decline a gift if acceptance would cause a reasonable person to question the employee’s integrity or impartiality.”
Two stories that broke late Monday are perfect examples of the kinds of ethical questions that can arise when a government official accepts a gift from a representative of an industry that he regulates.
The first, published by the New York Times, detailed how the EPA signed off on a pipeline expansion plan for Canadian energy company Enbridge at the same time that Pruitt was paying $50 a night to stay in the luxury condo connected with an energy lobbyist.
Enbridge is perhaps best known a pipeline rupture in 2010 that became the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. And the company is represented by the lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, which is the firm chaired by the husband of the woman who co-owns the condo in which Pruitt stayed.
While both the EPA and a spokesman for Williams & Jensen denied that the lobbying firm intervened in the decision, the situation shows how easy it is for a government official’s impartiality to be questioned when they accept gifts from an outside source.
“We are concerned that the unique rental arrangement, in which you only paid rent on the nights you were in town for use of one bedroom in the home, could be a potential conflict of interest,” a letter, sent on Monday to Pruitt by three Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said. “As Administrator, you have taken a number of actions to benefit industries regulated by EPA, and this news raises the possibility that you may have personally benefited from your relationship with industry.”
A separate story, published on Monday by the Daily Beast, revealed that while Pruitt was staying in the condo, at least three Republican members of Congress held fundraisers at the townhouse.
The EPA said that Pruitt was not invited to, and did not attend, any of the fundraisers, and his presence would not be prohibited by any kind of ethics law. But the situation also muddies the waters between a government official charged with regulating industry and a political atmosphere rife with industry-linked money. It typifies the kind of “revolving-door” concerns between government officials and lobbyists that President Trump railed against during his presidential campaign.
“Nothing says ‘the swamp’ like corporate lobbyists holding high-dollar fundraisers in a luxury Capitol Hill condo,” Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit ethics group, told the Daily Beast.
And while environmental groups and Democratic politicians have seized on Pruitt’s housing arrangement as proof of the administrator’s commitment to industry over public health and the environment, it appears as though the condo scandal has also reached the White House. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House has launched an inquiry to “dig a little deeper” into Pruitt’s rental agreement regarding the condo.
A private jet for Pruitt
At the same time that stories were breaking left and right about Pruitt’s sweetheart rental agreement, the Washington Post published a piece on Monday evening detailing how the EPA considered leasing a private jet for the administrator’s travel needs.
According to one company contacted by Pruitt’s aides, the cost for renting a private jet would have been around $100,000 a month. The idea was rejected, however, after top advisers objected. According to EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox, “we did our due diligence, found it was not as cost efficient and continued to fly commercial.”
Pruitt is already under scrutiny from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General for using taxpayer dollars for first-class flights throughout 2017. This summer, Pruitt spent at least $90,000 on a series of first-class and military flights — including a transatlantic flight from New York to Rome. The EPA also recently disclosed some $68,000 in travel costs since August at the request of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC).
Pruitt has said that he flies first class when he travels due to the “toxic” political environment — a statement that citizens living in actual toxic communities told ThinkProgress felt like “a slap in the face.”
“I wish that I could get away like that from my situation, but I don’t get a day off from living this nightmare,” Amy Brown, a North Carolina resident who has been forced to drink bottled water for more than 1,000 days due to coal ash contamination, said. Pruitt has recently proposed loosening federal regulations for coal ash disposal, at the behest of industry.
Unauthorized raises for political appointees
Adding to Pruitt’s seemingly endless cascade of ethical quagmires, the Atlantic reported on Tuesday morning that the administrator had circumvented the White House to give sizable raises to two of his closest political aides.
According to the article, Pruitt had requested significant pay increases for two young political aides who had worked with him in Oklahoma and were now working at the EPA.
When the White House declined the pay raises, Pruitt used an obscure loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act — which allows the EPA administrator to hire up to 30 people into the agency without White House or congressional approval — to give the employees raises. One employee received a pay bump of $28,130 over her 2017 salary, while another received $56,765 more.
As New Republic reporter Emily Atkin noted on Twitter, there’s no small amount of irony in the fact that Pruitt used a provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act — normally used to help the agency hire specialists for roles in overworked or understaffed offices — to give significant pay bumps to two of his closest aides.
Under Pruitt, the EPA has seen its staffing levels fall to Reagan-era levels of staffing, with a bulk of buy-outs and retirements hitting the offices of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Research and Development, and Enforcement and Compliance. Pruitt has also led a push to rollback regulations aimed at protecting drinking water for 1 in 3 Americans whose water sources are currently not protected by federal law.
Why Pruitt’s probably safe — for now
In any other world, the sheer amount of scandal and ethical issues facing Pruitt would raise serious questions about the administrator’s ability to successfully carry on as EPA Administrator.
The administrator of the EPA, after all, is in charge of the agency tasked with protecting human health and the environment. How could someone with such close ties to industry — and with so many ethical questions swirling around him — continue in his role?
The answer is simple: Under the Trump administration, the EPA’s mission has shifted — implicitly, if not explicitly — from protecting human health and the environment to dismantling the environmental regulations aimed at keeping industry in check.
Pruitt has consistently bragged about the work that the agency has done to roll back regulations, resulting in saved costs for industry. Trump campaigned on a similar platform of sweeping regulatory rollbacks aimed at helping industry.
The bottom line is that, unlike former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — who was forced to resign after a travel scandal — Pruitt has been ruthlessly effective in implementing Trump’s campaign promises.
Price violated ethical rules, to be sure, but he also failed to deliver on Trump’s essential promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Pruitt, on the other hand, has done nothing but pursue — with a single-minded kind of intention — Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
For the time being, that loyalty to Trump’s vision seems to be paying off. On Tuesday morning, multiple outlets reported that both Trump and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had been in touch with Pruitt to reiterate their support.
And a few hours later, surrounded by industry allies, Pruitt went out and did what he does best: execute Trump’s vision for a world with far fewer environmental regulations, with a public announcement about rolling back proposed federal emissions standards for automakers.
“This president has shown tremendous courage to show to the American people that America is going to be put first,” Pruitt said on Tuesday morning from a podium in the Rachel Carson room of the EPA’s headquarters. “We have nothing to be apologetic about.”