The acting director of the top ethics watchdog in the federal government has raised questions about a number of actions by embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
In a letter to EPA ethics official Kevin Minoli, first obtained by The New York Times, David Apol, acting director and general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics, expressed concerns regarding Pruitt’s $50 per night rental of a Capitol Hill condo owned by the wife of a lobbyist with business before the agency, his travel at taxpayer expense and other issues.
Apol, appointed acting director of OGE outside of the normal chain of succession after Walter Shaub’s resignation last year, questioned the process by which Pruitt received clearance from EPA ethics officials for a six-month rental of a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by the wife of J. Steven Hart, chairman of Williams and Jensen, a lobbying firm that represents several clients that fall under the agency’s jurisdiction.
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“Only after the existence of the lease was reported in the press did [Pruitt] provide EPA ethics advisors with limited information about the lease,” Apol wrote. “He then received, based on incomplete information he provided, an after-the-fact opinion that the lease did not constitute a gift. Additional information has now come to light that calls into question whether the earlier determination that the administrator paid market value for the use he made of the apartment would still be valid.”
Last week, Minoli walked back his earlier approval of the rental agreement, noting that his analysis was based solely on the text of the rental agreement, and not what actually took place after the lease was signed. Although Pruitt claimed only to have access to one room in the two-bedroom condo, his daughter reportedly stayed in the second bedroom rent-free while she was a White House intern.
Additionally, Apol raised concerns about some aspects of Pruitt’s taxpayer-funded first class travel and security arrangements, a controversy that has dogged the EPA administrator since last year.
“Whether or not an official’s travel and other expenses are consistent with regulations or are an appropriate use of scarce government resources is beyond the purview of OGE,” the ethics chief wrote. “Nevertheless, reports of the administrator making frequent official trips to his home state at government expense to offset the expense of returning home for personal or political reasons do raise concerns about whether the administrator is using his public office for personal gain in violation of ethics rules.”
Apol’s harshest words came with regard to reports in The New York Times that agency leadership retaliated against at least five officials who questioned Pruitt’s actions.
“There are extremely concerning reports that the administrator has reassigned or demoted staff who were attempting to ensure that the expenses and other actions were in accordance with laws and regulations,” Apol stated. “If true, it is hard to imagine any action that could more effectively undermine an agency’s integrity than punishing or marginalizing employees who strive to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations that safeguard that integrity.”
Apol stressed that Minoli must properly address these issues, and address any violations. He did not mention allegations last week that Pruitt circumvented the White House by using an obscure provision of the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act to grant substantial pay increases to two of his closest aides. Pruitt denied knowledge of the raises and said he reversed them upon finding out.
“The success of our government depends on maintaining the trust of the people we serve,” Apol wrote. “The American public needs to have confidence that ethics violations, as well as the appearance of ethics violations, are investigated and appropriately addressed.”
The letter comes amid growing bipartisan complaints over Pruitt’s conduct. On Sunday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told CNN that she thought the administrator was the “wrong person” to lead the agency.
“This daily drop of accusations of excessive spending and ethical violations serve to further distract the agency from accomplishing its very important mission,” she said. “I think Congress needs to do some oversight.”
Meanwhile, Trump appeared determined to protect Pruitt over the weekend, attempting to put the controversies in a more positive light in a Tweet Saturday.
“While Security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA,” the president wrote. “Record clean Air & Water while saving USA Billions of Dollars. Rent was about market rate, travel expenses OK. Scott is doing a great job!”