(Bloomberg) -- The energy lobbyist whose wife leased a bedroom to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt last year had a roster of clients with business before the EPA, handing fodder to critics who are demanding that Pruitt be fired.
J. Steven Hart, the chairman of Williams & Jensen, has said he didn’t personally lobby the EPA in 2017 or this year. But plenty of his corporate clients had pending matters with the agency, according to a Bloomberg News review of lobbying disclosures. And over the past 13 years, Hart may have occasionally pressed the EPA on regulations governing air and water pollution, according to those filings.
"J. Steven Hart is a very active lobbyist who has had considerable contact with the EPA," based on disclosures stretching back years, said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen.
President Donald Trump said Thursday that he still had confidence in the embattled EPA chief who is strongly backed by business leaders and prominent conservatives now mounting a campaign of support.
“He’s been very courageous. Hasn’t been easy,” Trump told reporters Thursday on Air Force One as he returned from a trip to West Virginia. “I can tell you, at EPA he’s done a fantastic job.”
Trump underscored that Friday, with a post on Twitter saying Pruitt “is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege.”
Nevertheless, Pruitt’s standing at the White House is not secure. Top administration officials are deeply skeptical of Pruitt’s explanation over how two close aides secured raises worth tens of thousands of dollars over the White House’s objection, according to people familiar with the matter. And they are frustrated by the barrage of damaging headlines about Pruitt, from the condo rental to a New York Times report Thursday that aides who questioned him were shifted to other jobs.
Questions about Pruitt’s lease stem from a bedroom he rented in a Capitol Hill condo from health care lobbyist Vicki Hart under terms that allowed him to pay $50 a day -- but only for the days it was occupied. Pruitt’s adult daughter also stayed there while working as a White House intern. Canceled checks reviewed by Bloomberg show he paid $6,100 to use the room over roughly six months last year.
But the name printed on the lease is that of Vicki Hart’s husband, J. Steven Hart. His name was scratched out and hers written in its place on a copy of the lease included in an EPA memo obtained by Bloomberg News.
"Vicki Hart is the sole owner of this unit," EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said, when asked about the lease change.
J. Steven Hart previously described Pruitt as a friend from Oklahoma with whom he had scant contact and said in an emailed statement that the condominium is not owned by Williams & Jensen, its partners or other firm employees.
"Any suggestion that Administrator Pruitt’s short-term rental of one of its bedrooms in 2017 resulted in undue influence for the firm or its clients with business before the EPA is simply false," Hart said. "I am confident in these facts, and certain that all fair and impartial assessments of the matter will conclude accordingly."
Critics, however, say that the rental arrangement casts the appearance of impropriety over a range of EPA decisions.
The EPA’s top ethics officer said last week that based on a narrow review of just the lease terms, the bedroom was rented for a fair "market value" and therefore the arrangement did not constitute a violation of federal gift bans for government employees.
But the officer, Kevin Minoli, also stressed that his analysis was limited, and he did not scrutinize whether the rental deal violated other ethics rules requiring government employees to be impartial, nor did he examine "whether the actual use of the space was consistent with the lease agreement."
Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics who resigned last year after clashing with the Trump administration, said that under the impartiality rule, Pruitt should have steered clear of all clients of the Harts -- as well as those of their lobbying firms.
"The impartiality regulation addresses when you must recuse from matters involving a person with whom you have a ’covered relationship,’" Shaub said on Twitter. Pruitt’s lease gave him a covered relationship with anyone in J. Steven Hart’s firm, "because the definition of ‘person’ includes both an individual and the individual’s employer."
J. Steven Hart’s clients have included the liquefied natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy Inc., pipeline operator Enbridge Inc., meat processor Smithfield Foods Inc. and other companies that have interactions with the EPA, according to disclosures filed with Congress. Because of the way lobbying contacts are reported in required disclosures, it is not clear how much direct interaction -- if any -- Hart may have had with Congress or federal agencies on clients’ behalf. And Hart did not individually lobby for Enbridge or Smithfield last year, filings show.
Hart was part of a four-lobbyist team that lobbied the EPA, the House and the Senate on behalf of glass manufacturer Owens-Illinois Inc. last year, according to the disclosures. The filings, which were first reported by the Daily Beast, show the team addressed environmental legislation and regulations regarding greenhouse gas emissions and glass recycling. The disclosures did not indicate which of the four lobbyists contacted the EPA.
Last June, an Owens-Illinois subsidiary, Rocky Mountain Bottle Co. LLC signed a $475,000 deal with the EPA and the State of Colorado settling alleged violations of the Clean Air Act. The company was accused of expanding a furnace without first obtaining pre-construction permits and installing required pollution control equipment, according to filings. In an emailed statement, Williams & Jensen said the firm had not lobbied the EPA on the settlement.
Representatives for Owens-Illinois did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Williams & Jensen said in the statement that Hart has not lobbied the EPA on the matter.
The firm has at least a 17-year history representing Enbridge, according to disclosures, though any individual lobbying by Hart on the Canadian pipeline company’s behalf appears to have ended in 2002, the filings show.
For more than four years, Enbridge sought a U.S. government permit essential for its plans to double capacity on the Alberta Clipper pipeline that ships Canadian crude from Alberta to Wisconsin. The efforts moved slowly under the Obama administration, but fortunes changed after Trump’s election, and last October, the State Department issued a presidential permit to allow the expansion.
One key ingredient in getting that approval: the EPA’s conclusion last March that it had no major objections to the project or the government’s analysis of it.
At least seven lobbying firms were working on Enbridge’s behalf at the time. Williams & Jensen said in a filing it was lobbying the State Department, Energy Department and Transportation Department -- but not the EPA -- for Enbridge on "issues affecting pipelines and construction of new pipelines."
Enbridge cast its approval as the culmination of a lengthy regulatory review that "took more than four years and was exceptionally thorough." In a statement, the company said Williams & Jensen did not work on Enbridge’s behalf on "any regulatory matters" before the Trump administration, and Hart "has never been registered to lobby on behalf of Enbridge."
Hart also represented Cheniere, the first major American exporter of liquefied natural gas, though the EPA was not a target of lobbying. Although the Department of Energy -- not the EPA -- plays the major federal role overseeing liquefied natural gas exports, Pruitt traveled to Morocco to tout American liquefied natural gas last December.
Cheniere spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder said the company terminated its lobbying contract with Williams & Jensen last year and did not use the firm for lobbying the EPA.
"We didn’t use them to have any discussions with the EPA," Burnham-Snyder said by phone. "It’s a surprise. We were unaware of the relationship."
The relationship underscores how interactions between government officials and industry lobbyists can generate an appearance of a conflict of interest -- even if no barred transactions took place.
Federal laws are meant to help prevent any ethical taint. For instance, government employees are required to act impartially and prohibited from giving preferential treatment to any private organization or individual. They also are barred from accepting gifts or other items of value from people or entities seeking official action or conducting business with the employee’s agency.
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