Pressure Builds for Probe of Pruitt's Travel, $50 Condo Deal
(Bloomberg) -- Lawmakers and watchdog groups are pressuring federal investigators to widen a probe into Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s travel and security protection, amid intensifying scrutiny of his unorthodox rental of a Capitol Hill condominium last year.
Republicans and Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have requested information on Pruitt’s housing situation, and watchdog groups have asked the EPA’s inspector general to scrutinize the arrangement. The inspector general is already investigating Pruitt’s travel, including frequent trips to the administrator’s home state of Oklahoma.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, told the EPA’s inspector general he had obtained weekly schedules for Pruitt’s security team showing "that significant agency resources are being devoted to Administrator Pruitt’s round-the-clock security, even when he is traveling on non-official business" to his home in Oklahoma, Disneyland and the Rose Bowl game.
“The documents and information that have been provided to me raise many troubling questions," Whitehouse said in a March 20 letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins that was reviewed by Bloomberg News. "While I consider matters of personal security to be extremely serious, personal security should never be used as a pretext to obtain special treatment."
Pruitt also is coming under withering criticism for renting a condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist under unconventional lease terms that permitted him to pay $50 only on days it was actually occupied -- with a total of $6,100 in payments over a roughly six-month period. Immediate family members also stayed at the site when they were in Washington, the EPA’s designated ethics official said in a March 30 memo after the lease was reviewed following an ABC News report on the living arrangement.
The ethics official said the arrangement was consistent with federal ethics regulations because Pruitt paid “market value” for it.
That explanation isn’t sitting well with Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who wrote Pruitt a letter on Monday arguing that "the unique rental arrangement, in which you only paid rent on the nights you were in town for use of one bedroom in the home, could be a conflict of interest."
The Democrats, led by Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, said the rental "potentially violates" an ethics pledge signed by Pruitt and sought answers to questions about whether he had full access to the house and if his daughter paid rent while she stayed there.
“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 industry," the lawmakers wrote.
Pruitt is slated to appear before the committee later this month.
Other Democrats have pounced on the revelations. Senator Doug Jones from Alabama told ABC News’ "This Week" that he thinks Pruitt "is in real trouble" because "it just looks so bad." Representative Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia, said Pruitt should resign or "be fired immediately," because the EPA chief had shown "contempt for transparency, ethical guidelines and the public interest."
Even some Republicans joined in. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told ABC News’ "This Week" he wasn’t sure Pruitt could weather the scandal.
"I don’t know how you survive this one," said Christie, a Republican who was ousted as the head of President Donald Trump’s transition team after the 2016 election. And David Jolly, a former Republican representative from Florida, said there should be a criminal investigation, blasting Pruitt as a "grifter" in a post on Twitter.
EPA representatives did not immediately respond to an email seeking a response to the criticism. They previously have cited the agency’s internal ethics review finding Pruitt’s lease was consistent with federal ethics regulations. EPA officials also have said Pruitt’s 24/7 protection -- and past reliance on first-class travel -- was necessary for security reasons.
Whitehouse asked the investigator to examine whether Pruitt is staying in higher-priced hotels than former agency chiefs after being advised by multiple sources that while on official trips, "the administrator has frequently requested per diem lodging expenses in excess of the federal government’s established daily rate."
Whitehouse also asked the inspector general to probe whether Pruitt flew first class even when traveling on personal business -- and if his bodyguards were seated there too. In addition, he asked whether the government paid for tickets for Pruitt’s protective detail to attend the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 and visit Disneyland the next two days alongside the administrator.
Whitehouse suggested that EPA staff have been reassigned from enforcement to Pruitt’s protective detail, possibly hampering the agency’s ability to go after polluters: "At a time when EPA’s enforcement actions have dramatically declined, has the agency adequately considered the effect of reassigning agents from their normal job investigating environmental crimes to work on Administrator Pruitt’s private security detail?”
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