3.5.18

Scott Pruitt’s actions at the EPA have triggered nearly a dozen investigations

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing several investigations for potential violations of the law and ethics rules.

All of the investigations we know of, explained.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt emerged bruised but unbroken from two hearings on Capitol Hill last week where he faced intense questioning and open calls for his resignation from lawmakers.

While his boss President Trump’s misdeeds are now dominating the news again, troubling details of Pruitt’s increasingly long list of alleged ethical transgressions have continued to trickle out. Just this week, the Washington Post reported that Pruitt’s unannounced trip to Morocco last year to pitch US natural gas cost $100,000, more than double previous estimates, and was arranged by a close lobbyist friend, Richard Smotkin, who in turn won a $40,000-a-month contract to lobby on behalf of the Moroccan government.

Some of Pruitt’s ethics problems are no longer just allegations, but violations of the law: The Government Accountability Office concluded last month that the $43,000 soundproof phone booth Pruitt insisted upon for his office broke two laws that restrict how agencies can spend money.

And there may be more to come. Multiple institutions — including the GAO, the EPA’s inspector general, the House Oversight Committee, and the White House — are investigating Pruitt’s other indiscretions like his first class luxury travel, a sweetheart housing deal with a lobbyist, retaliation against staff, and his use of a loophole to get raises for two close aides.

Pruitt now faces almost a dozen federal investigations and is now looking to set up a legal defense fund, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, three top EPA officials have resigned this week: Top communications staffer Liz Bowman, the head of Pruitt’s security detail Pasquale Perrotta, and Albert Kelly, a banker banned from the banking industry who was put in charge of the Superfund program.

The investigations will likely take months to complete, but forthcoming decisions could change the balance of Pruitt’s standing in the White House as he struggles to keep his tally of accomplishments at the EPA above his rising scandals.

Here is a list based on the best information we could gather on many of the investigations into his time in office:

The EPA’s in-house watchdog is on the case

The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General audits and investigates potential wrongdoing at the agency. Though it’s part of the EPA, Congress appropriates its budget separately to give it independence.

A spokesperson for the IG explained that audit is a systematic assessment of how well an EPA office is doing its job, whereas an investigation is conducted in response to reports of wrongdoing and focus on an individual. The IG’s office does not confirm or deny the existence of ongoing investigations.

Arthur Elkins, the EPA’s Inspector General, sent a letter to lawmakers last month informing them that his office is adding some of their concerns to existing audits and will likely open new reviews as well, though the office has not issued any public notifications of new work.

The IG’s office did confirm to Vox that at least four audits related to Pruitt are underway:

  • There is an expanded audit of the “frequency, cost and extent of the Administrator’s travel” after reports of Pruitt’s penchant for first-class flights and nearly $200,000 in travel expenses. The audit focuses on travel up to December 31, 2017.
  • Pruitt has surrounded himself with an unprecedented 24-hour security detail with as many as 20 members that has accompanied him on personal trips to the Rose Bowl and to Disneyland. The IG is auditing the protective detail to see whether there are adequate controls on scheduling and approving employees’ time. This was rolled into a previous IG audit started in 2016 looking into overpayments to security detail staff.
  • Building on the previous audit, the IG is also looking into the ongoing cost of Pruitt’s bodyguards and potential overbilling in how the team recorded their hours.
  • The IG is also examining Pruitt’s use of administrative hiring under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which allows the EPA to bring on staff without approval from Congress or the White House. The audit includes the report that two close Pruitt aides received huge raises after the White House declined to grant the pay bumps. The IG issued a preliminary report on last month noting that the office didn’t receive any evidence that the pay raises were reversed.

Meanwhile, the IG has placed the following additional matters under review:

  • The IG is reviewing whether Pruitt violated anti-lobbying rules during an April 2017 meeting with the National Mining Association where he encouraged the group to press President Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord.
  • Samantha Dravis, an associate administrator for policy at the EPA who traveled abroad with Pruitt, abruptly resigned last month from her $179,700-a-year job. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) asked the IG last month to verify a report that she did not show up to work for much of the time between November 2017 and January 2018. The IG’s office confirmed to Vox that a review is underway that has not been formally announced.
  • The IG is also considering whether to examine Pruitt’s housing arrangements. Pruitt leased a cushy condo close to Capitol Hill last year at the too-good-to-be-true rate of $50 a night, and only for the nights he stayed there. The condo belongs to the wife of a prominent lobbyist who petitioned the EPA on behalf of an energy utility and whose firm represents major oil and gas interests.
  • Albert Kelly, an Oklahoma banker who lent money to Pruitt, was hired to run the EPA’s Superfund program. The IG is reviewing a request from Congress to look into whether this was an example of political patronage.

The GAO is also scrutinizing the EPA

The GAO’s key responsibility is to keep track of how the government spends money, so it makes sense that the agency is very interested in what’s going on at the EPA.

Last month, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) sent a letter to the GAO asking it to look into Pruitt’s potential misuse of hiring authority. A spokesperson for GAO said it will not begin work on this request until it the EPA IG completes its review, but did confirm to Vox three audits are underway or completed:

  • Pruitt had a soundproof phone booth built in his office to the tune of $43,000. The GAO took over the investigation from the EPA IG and found that the phone booth broke two laws, one limiting office upgrades to $5,000 and one that prevents an agency from spending more money than allocated by Congress.
  • The GAO is also investigating Pruitt for violating an anti-propaganda law. Pruitt appeared in a video for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association asking ranchers to weigh in against an expansion of the Clean Water Act.
  • There’s also an ongoing GAO audit of Pruitt’s purge of the EPA’s science advisors last year under the guise of removing conflicts of interest.

Congress wants to know what’s up too

The House Oversight Committee is investigating Pruitt’s travels to Morocco and Italy, as well as his housing arrangements as part of one broad investigation. A spokesperson this week told Vox the Committee has already received 1,700 pages of documents.

The committee has already interviewed Perrotta and has lined up interviews with Chmielewski, EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson, and the two Pruitt aides who got raises without White House approval, Millan Hupp and Sarah Greenwalt.

Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy went on Fox News last month and mocked Pruitt’s excuses for wanting to fly first class.

The White House has launched its own investigation into Pruitt’s condo deal as well. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, four House Republicans have called on Pruitt to resign, while a handful of senators have publicly come to his defense. At the same time, the administrator’s allies in the fossil fuel sector and among conservative groups are rallying the troops to keep him in office, scrambling to justify his massive security detail and to brush off audits as a political ploy.

By the time these audits yield tangible results (it could be months), some of the pressure on Pruitt is likely to have dissipated. But environmentalists are energized and some Democrats smell blood in the water, so they aren’t likely to let this go and will continue making more inquiries.

And come November, the balance of power may shift in Congress. So the White House will have to weigh whether Pruitt can still advance the ball for the Trump agenda against the questions about his ethics.

source: vox

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