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Holding the Government Accountable

Pruitt's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

If you’re one of President Trump’s Cabinet members, it’s always a bad sign when Fox News tears you apart in an exclusive interview. And it’s especially rough when that happens before your no good, very bad day has even begun. Maybe Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt should have listened earlier this week when the White House told him not to make any public appearances.

We’ll say it up front, in case you haven’t watched TV or been on Twitter recently: There’s a good chance there will be more to say about Pruitt a second after this post goes up. So instead of providing an up-to-the-minute update, we’ll tell you how Pruitt’s day went yesterday.

It started with posters appearing in his own agency’s halls calling him a “swamp monster,” and only got worse from there, with a series of ethics-related revelations. At the top of the list is the charge that he fired or reassigned at least five EPA officials—four career officials and one political appointee—for challenging him on his spending and management of agency resources. Efforts that the officials had objected to, and which didn’t ultimately come to fruition, included a $100,000-a-month charter plane membership and a $70,000 plan to replace two desks in Pruitt’s office and add a bulletproof desk to the security station outside his office. (Don’t feel too sorry for him—he got other perks like being allowed to use his motorcade’s sirens to get to the airport or dinner when he was running late, despite officials’ protests.)

Pruitt got into even deeper hot water yesterday when it became clear that the hasty ethics review he requested of his sweetheart condo arrangement with the wife of lobbyist J. Steven Hart is now in question, at least in part because ethics officials claim they were given incomplete information about the deal. A copy of the condo lease shows that Hart’s name was actually crossed out, in pencil, and replaced with his wife’s name, although officials had previously said Hart had not been involved.

Earlier in the week, The New York Times reported that Hart leads a firm that lobbied the EPA on a number of issues over the past year for clients including a company whose pipeline project was approved. Other news outlets reported that Millan Hupp, a top aide to Pruitt, led Pruitt’s post-condo housing search during work hours. Don Fox, a former top official at the Office of Government Ethics, said it would amount to a violation of the prohibition against misusing government resources regardless of when Hupp led the search.

Hupp was involved in another of Pruitt’s ethics tangles earlier in the week. A special hiring authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act had been used to give Hupp and another staffer close to Pruitt a salary boost, even though the White House had denied them a pay raise. In his Fox News interview, Pruitt denied knowing about the use of the special hiring authority. He made this claim despite the fact that the statute requires a determination by the EPA Administrator. The hiring authority was also used to hire at least 20 other officials, including several top deputies with close ties to industry and lobbying firms, prompting an Inspector General investigation in January.

The dispute over the use of the hiring authority resulted in Pruitt’s final ethics revelation from yesterday: two EPA officials who spoke with The Washington Post asserted that Pruitt had, in fact, as The Post put it, “endorsed the idea” of giving his staffers the raises, although he “did not carry out the pay raise himself.”

In a rare bit of the day’s Pruitt-related news that wasn’t about his ethics scandals, several outlets reported that Pruitt’s top policy official, Samantha Dravis, tendered her resignation last week. Dravis has worked closely with Pruitt since the presidential transition and sources have called her his “best friend” at the Agency. Sources told The New York Times yesterday that Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, was also considering resigning amid Pruitt’s building controversies.

These cases of Pruitt’s flouting ethics rules and norms didn’t come out of the blue—they’re preceded by numerous ethically questionable decisions since he began heading the EPA, including a demand for a round-the-clock security detail, using taxpayer funds to build an expensive soundproof booth in his office, and repeatedly taking pricey first-class flights, the subject of another Inspector General investigation.

The Project On Government Oversight has kept a close eye on key government officials' conflicts of interest and ethics violations for years, but Pruitt has ascended to new heights. Beyond our direct concerns about agency spending and misuse of resources, we're concerned about Pruitt's mismanagement of the EPA more broadly, including a case in which Pruitt violated the law by delaying worker protection rules at the bidding of agricultural interests.

It’s important that yesterday’s ethics violations be investigated thoroughly, and Congress’s inaction is allowing these issues to pile up. The sheer volume of ethics-related allegations against Pruitt, however, and the evidence supporting those allegations, indicate he should not be allowed to run a critical government agency like the EPA and should be removed from his post. We agree with President George H.W. Bush’s EPA administrator William K. Reilly that Pruitt is “well beyond his sell-by date.”