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Scott Pruitt’s attempt to defend himself against his scandals could turn into a new scandal

With list of investigations growing, EPA chief makes plans for legal defense fund.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reportedly is setting up a legal defense fund. CREDIT: Jason Andrew/Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reportedly is setting up a legal defense fund. CREDIT: Jason Andrew/Getty Images

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is setting up a legal defense fund to pay legal expenses as he faces nearly a dozen investigations into his work as agency chief over the past 15 months.

Pruitt is expected to operate the fund privately, with no ties to the EPA, the New York Times reported Tuesday. Legal defense funds have also been set up for Trump administration officials under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller for their alleged involvement in Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

News of the legal defense fund emerged on the same day that two of Pruitt’s most trusted lieutenants resigned. Pasquale Perrotta, who served as Pruitt’s chief of security, and Albert Kelly, who ran the agency’s Superfund program, called it quits as scrutiny of their roles at the agency intensified.

Since he arrived in Washington, Pruitt’s judgment as a senior administration official has been called into question. He is the subject of investigations by the EPA’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and Congress.

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Pruitt is being probed for spending taxpayer funds for first class travel and a large security detail, and for renting an apartment from an industry lobbyist at a favorable rate. He is also facing allegations that he fired or demoted staff who sought to advise him against the travel expenses.

“If Scott Pruitt can’t see the ethical problem in the $50-a-night rental he was getting and all the conflicts of interest wrapped up in that arrangement, then there is certainly cause for concern over how he is going to construct a legal defense fund,” said John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on making government and politics more accountable and transparent.

A government ethics expert told the New York Times that the creation of such a fund could cause further problems for Pruitt should energy companies or other industries regulated by the EPA contribute to it. However, the rules surrounding who can contribute to legal defense funds for government regulators are unclear.

Pruitt is opening up a legal defense fund when he hasn’t been charged with breaking the law, noted Pat Gallagher, legal director of the Sierra Club.

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“Maybe he knows something about his activities we don’t,” Gallagher said Wednesday in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “This presents a real swamp of even more potential ethical and legal conflicts for Scott Pruitt, as he could — and, very likely, would — seek to accept contributions from his most die-hard backers, like corporate polluters who are already attempting to get Pruitt’s EPA to gut public health safeguards.”

The EPA had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress. An EPA spokesperson told the New York Times that the agency “does not set up a legal expense fund for any employee.”

The number of investigations into Pruitt is growing by the week, perhaps one reason why the embattled EPA chief chose to create the legal defense fund. The current investigations and probes into Pruitt include:

  • The EPA’s inspector general is auditing Pruitt’s travel, including frequent trips to his home state of Oklahoma and his December 2017 trip to Morocco.
  • The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating Pruitt’s frequent first-class travel on airplanes.
  • The Government Accountability Office completed an investigation in which it concluded the EPA violated the law by failing to give Congress advance notification about plans to spend $43,000 on a secure phone booth in Pruitt’s office.
  • The White House Office of Management and Budget is looking into the purchase of the $43,000 secure phone booth.
  • The EPA’s inspector general is investigating the use of funds by the agency to construct the $43,000 secure phone booth.
  • The EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s security detail and its use for personal travel by Pruitt and his family.
  • The EPA’s inspector general is conducting research into how the EPA’s criminal enforcement office reports pay awarded to officers who frequently work extra, unscheduled time beyond their regular workdays.
  • The EPA’s inspector general is looking into Pruitt’s rental of a Capitol Hill bedroom from a lobbyist under favorable terms that allowed him to pay $50 per day.
  • The EPA’s inspector general issued an interim report as part of its investigation into how Pruitt’s office used special legal authority to fill up to 30 positions under the Safe Drinking Water Act and award pay raises to some political appointees.
  • The Government Accountability Office is examining whether the EPA violated lobbying laws because of Pruitt’s appearance in a video describing his opposition to a rule on water pollution enacted under former President Barack Obama.
  • The EPA’s inspector general is gathering information about a meeting Pruitt had with the National Mining Association in April 2017, following a report the administrator urged the coal group to encourage Trump to pull the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.

Other legal defense funds have been set up for top Trump administration officials. One of them supports past and present members of the Trump administration and campaign staff for legal expenses related to the Russia investigations. The fund, the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust LLC, was formally established as a limited liability corporation based in Delaware, according to a news release.

Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter to the Office of Government Ethics last month suggesting that the Patriot Legal Expense Fund may be set up in a way that it could keep the identities of donors secret.

“The structure of the fund appears to allow secret donations … and it raises serious concerns about whether it complies with ethics, tax, and elections laws,” the lawmakers wrote in their April 2 letter to David Apol, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics.

The Office of Government Ethics issued a legal advisory last September on legal defense funds established to cover the costs of legal expenses incurred by executive branch employees. “OGE has been advising, and is continuing to advise, that the instruments of establishing legal defense funds include a clause stating that ‘contributions shall not be accept from anonymous sources,’” Apol wrote in the advisory.

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Schaub, who now serves as senior director for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, described the Patriot Legal Expense Fund, which will reimburse legal fees stemming from the Russia investigations, as “a radical and dangerous departure” from established practice for government-employee legal defense funds. The fund, for example, is formulated under an IRS designation for political organizations, Schaub wrote in a February op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times.

Toward the end of President Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Clinton Legal Expense Trust was established to aid Clinton staff who became part of the Whitewater investigation, the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, and Congress’ impeachment inquiry and trial.

The Clinton legal defense funds for government workers were structured as trusts — not as political fundraising entities — for one employee at a time. In such trusts, the money collected can only be disbursed to that single beneficiary. “It can’t be used to favor or shun potential recipients based on what they may or may not reveal to investigators,” Schaub wrote.

Despite its name, Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust was set up not as a trust but as a limited liability company and its funds can go to any of the White House staffers, campaign workers, or other Trump associates who get caught up in the Russia investigations, he explained.

The Trump administration’s general legal defense fund “is flouting norms for how they should operate,” Wonderlich said.

For Pruitt’s legal defense fund, it is unknown at this time how it is going to operate. “But if it reflects his tenure in office,” Wonderlich said, “then there’s significant cause for concern about preventing conflicts of interest or the defense fund becoming yet another scandal for Pruitt.”