EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is under fire for multiple alleged ethics lapses.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is under fire for multiple alleged ethics lapses. Andrew Harnik/AP

EPA Watchdog Asked to Probe Agency's Broad Ethics 'Failures'

Administrator Pruitt's alleged misspending on travel and security leaves program "broken," advocacy group attorneys charge.

The barrage of negative news reports about Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s spending on travel, security and personal lodging prompted a nonprofit group to demand a broad investigation of the agency’s ethics program by its inspector general.

On Tuesday, attorneys at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington wrote to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. calling EPA’s system of consultations on ethics “broken and in disarray . . . This many scandals coming from one agency in so short a time may be unprecedented, and the systematic undermining of the agency’s ethics program has made a bad situation much worse,” wrote CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder and CREW Chair Norm Eisen, a former Obama White House ethics chief.

The 16-page letter warned that “Pruitt and his staff have engaged in a pattern of misconduct that undermines the integrity of the agency’s policy-making process.” It provided footnoted detail on the controversies over Pruitt’s spending of $43,000 on a soundproof booth, his acceptance of discounted lodging in Washington from a lobbyist’s spouse, his “abusing travel and special hiring authorities,” his questionable pay raises to political appointees, and alleged “retaliatory actions directed at employees who voiced objections to the conduct of top officials.”

Pruitt and his team sought advice and permission for first-class travel and other potentially problematic arrangements from EPA Senior Counsel for Ethics Justina Fugh and Designated Agency Ethics Official and Principal Deputy General Counsel Kevin S. Minoli, the letter noted.

“But in some cases, Pruitt and other officials appear to have sought ethics advice after the fact, without having disclosed all relevant facts,” the attorneys wrote. “In others, they appeared not to have obtained ethics advice at all. Even worse, allegations of retaliation against officials who challenged the conduct of top officials undermines confidence in the decision-making process for ethics matters.”

A larger probe is necessary, CREW argued, because “any good-faith effort requires that the advice be sought prior to taking any action that could implicate ethics laws and regulations, that all relevant information be fully disclosed to ethics officials, and that ethics officials feel comfortable providing uninhibited guidance. In turn, ethics officials must be held to rigorous standards in the advice and determinations they provide.”

The Government Accountability Office and several lawmakers have also weighed in on Pruitt’s alleged ethical lapses and conduct.

Asked for a response, Elkins’ office told Government Executive that it had just been made aware of the letter on Tuesday. CREW’s request "will be considered by Elkins and his leadership team,” said Congressional and Media Liaison Jeffrey Lagda. “As noted in the CREW request, some of the allegations (i.e., use of the special hiring authority for political appointees, travel by the administrator) are already being audited by the OIG. Other allegations (i.e., lease agreement) are being considered for possible OIG action.”