Democratic senator accuses EPA administrator of violating federal law

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) filed a Hatch Act complaint over an invitation to the event promoting Pruitt’s political actions.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Teresa Crawford
CREDIT: AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

Next Friday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt — former Oklahoma Attorney General — will give the keynote address at the Oklahoma Republican Party’s annual gala.

And already, at least one Democratic lawmaker is arguing that Pruitt’s appearance at the fundraising event violates federal law.

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Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, filed a complaint on Tuesday with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, alleging that Pruitt is in violation of the Hatch Act, which limits the political participation of federal employees.

In a flyer advertising the event, the Oklahoma GOP touts Pruitt’s role as EPA administrator, highlighting steps he has taken since February to roll back environmental regulations.

“You do not want to miss Pruitt at this year’s OKGOP Gala, as he discusses his plans to slash regulations, bring back jobs to Oklahoma, and decrease the size of the EPA,” the flyer reads.

The gala is a fundraiser for the Oklahoma GOP, with tickets to the dinner running $100 and tickets to the VIP reception costing $50. Attendees also have the option of purchasing sponsorship packages, which run from $2,000 to $5,000.

Under the Hatch Act, federal employees can engage in political activities, but cannot allow their official title to be used in connection with fundraising. Federal employees can give speeches at political fundraisers, but must appear only in their personal capacity, and can’t use their position in the federal government to help solicit donations. And while an employee’s name may appear on invitations to a fundraising event, the employee’s title cannot be used.

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The invitation appears to violate all of those requirements, referencing Pruitt’s official title at least three times and citing his actions as administrator to promote the gala.

“The unmistakable impression one receives from the May 5 invitation is that by purchasing a ticket or agreeing to sponsor the OKGOP Gala, the attendee will have special access to federal employee discussing official actions already taken, and to be taken in the future,” Whitehouse writes in his complaint. “This is clearly impermissible political activity under the Hatch Act.”

It is rare, though not unheard of, for sitting cabinet members to violate the Hatch Act. Two of President Obama’s cabinet secretaries — former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro — were found to be in violation of the Hatch Act for making personal political statements while operating in an official capacity. Federal employees found to be in violation of the act can be reprimanded, suspended, or fired. Violations against presidential appointees are referred to the president, who ultimately makes the decision about what penalties the appointees will face. Neither Sebelius nor Castro were punished for their violations.

According to the EPA, Pruitt’s appearance at the event was approved by the agency’s ethics office and the flyer was created independently by the Oklahoma GOP, Politico reported.

But Whitehouse’s letter cites Pruitt’s “long history of political solicitation from industries he now regulates,” suggesting such activities present “a pattern of behavior that warrants close scrutiny.”

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Before becoming EPA administrator, Pruitt led the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), where he worked to increase donations from fossil fuel companies and organizations. Under Pruitt’s tenure, fossil fuel giants like the American Petroleum Institute, ConocoPhillips, Alpha Natural Resources, and American Electric Power all joined the association.

Large donations to RAGA became so common that Pruitt oversaw the creation of the Rule of Law Defense Fund, which claimed nonprofit status and therefore has never had to disclose its donors. But public reporting shows that Freedom Partners — a Koch-backed organization — has contributed at least $175,000 to the Rule of Law Defense Fund.

During his confirmation process, several Democratic senators unsuccessfully requested more information about the Rule of Law Defense Fund and about Pruitt’s financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. Despite failing to provide the requested information, Pruitt was eventually confirmed by a vote of 52 to 46 — only one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), voted against him.