Trump privately offers support, while pressure to investigate the EPA administrator grows.
Just days after revelations that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt may have paid below the fair market rate to rent an apartment from a lobbyist couple last year, scrutiny of the embattled Cabinet member has intensified.
For a six-month period in 2017, Pruitt reportedly paid $50 per night—and an average of about $1,000 per month—to stay at a Capitol Hill condo owned by Vicki Hart, a health care lobbyist who is married to Williams and Jensen chairman J. Steven Hart. Among that firm’s clients are multiple companies under the EPA’s jurisdiction. His daughter also stayed at the apartment while she was a White House intern.
Since Government Executive first reported that the Harts hosted Republican congressional campaign fundraisers in the condominium complex while Pruitt lived there, The Daily Beast found additional instances of events held on the property, although the EPA said Pruitt did not attend any of them.
On Monday, The New York Times reported that in March 2017, the EPA approved a pipeline expansion plan from the Canadian firm Enbridge Inc., which was represented by Williams and Jensen. And The Washington Post noted that the EPA last year considered leasing a private jet for Pruitt at a potential monthly cost of $100,000. Pruitt has previously come under fire for his practice of using taxpayer funds to fly first class.
The latest in Pruitt-related controversies came Tuesday from The Atlantic, which reported that last month, the administrator asked the White House to approve substantial pay raises for two of his closest aides, but was rebuffed. After his request was denied, Pruitt employed an obscure provision of the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act to reappoint the staffers—at higher salaries—without administration or congressional approval.
Although on Monday President Trump reportedly called Pruitt to privately express his support for the EPA administrator, the president was less effusive to reporters at a meeting with Baltic leaders on Tuesday.
“I hope he’s going to be great,” Trump said of Pruitt.
In an email to Government Executive Friday night, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended Pruitt’s 2017 living arrangement.
“As EPA career ethics officials stated in a memo, Administrator Pruitt’s housing arrangement for both himself and family was not a gift and the lease was consistent with federal ethics regulations,” Wilcox wrote.
Over on Capitol Hill, lawmakers pushed for greater oversight into Pruitt’s actions during his tenure. On Monday, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee demanded Pruitt explain the unorthodox condo rental agreement.
“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 the industry,” wrote Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., ranking member of the committee. “Specifically, these reports raise serious questions as to whether this arrangement unduly influenced any decisions you made that potentially affected the business of William and Jensen clients.”
Reps. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Don Beyer, D-Va., on Wednesday called on the EPA Office of the Inspector General to investigate the lease agreement, noting that the memo from EPA ethics officials seemed to contradict Vicki Hart, who told ABC News she did not authorize anyone else to stay at the condo. Last week, Beyer called on Pruitt to resign.
“The Office of the General Counsel’s memorandum explicitly states, ‘The lease authorized use by the administrator and his immediate family, specifically including his spouse and children, and consistent with that provision of the lease his immediate family did stay there when they were in Washington, D.C.,’” Lieu and Beyer wrote. “This directly contradicts statements made by Vicki Hart . . . The OGC decision and Hart’s statements cannot simultaneously be true.”
Calls for Pruitt to resign became bipartisan Tuesday, as Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., joined Beyer and Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., in a statement on Twitter.
“Major policy differences aside, [Pruitt’s] corruption scandals are an embarrassment to the administration, and his conduct is grossly disrespectful to American taxpayers,” Curbelo said. “It’s time for him to resign or for [Trump] to dismiss him.”
Fellow Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen echoed Curbelo's call in a statement to The Huffington Post Tuesday.
"When scandals and distractions overtake a public servant's ability to function effectively, another person should fill that role," she said.