EPA Watchdog Opens Probe of Scott Pruitt's $50 Condo Rental

(Bloomberg) -- The Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog will probe Administrator Scott Pruitt’s unorthodox rental of a Capitol Hill condominium from a lobbyist, marking at least the 10th federal investigation of the agency’s chief.

EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. confirmed the probe in letters to Democratic Representatives Don Beyer of Virginia and Ted Lieu of California, who had requested the inquiry. The government’s top ethics officer, David Apol of the Office of Government Ethics, had also encouraged the move, saying the American public needs to have confidence that allegations surrounding Pruitt are fully investigated.

Pruitt has drawn scrutiny for frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma at taxpayer expense, questionable spending decisions at the environmental agency, raises given to two top aides over White House objections, and allegations that some employees were sidelined after questioning his decisions.

The new investigation focuses on Pruitt’s rental of a room in a two-bedroom condo from a lobbyist whose husband, J. Steven Hart, had clients with matters pending before the agency. Hart, who’s also a lobbyist, was present at a meeting with Pruitt at least once in 2017, and some of his corporate clients had matters before the agency.

Pruitt paid $50 per day to lease the bedroom, but only for nights he stayed there. And when he didn’t sleep in the space, Pruitt still could leave “limited” belongings behind in the condo, located a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, according to his lease.

In all, Pruitt paid $6,100 to use the room for roughly six months in 2017, according to canceled checks with irregular dates, sometimes coming six weeks apart.

Under the lease terms, Pruitt was required to leave his bedroom door unlocked and was barred from using common areas, which continued to be a venue for dinner parties and meetings during his time there.

Previously, EPA’s top ethics officer said the lease itself didn’t violate federal ethics regulations barring certain gifts. But the ethics officer didn’t examine whether the arrangement with a lobbyist violated other ethics rules, nor whether the actual use of the space was consistent with the lease agreement.

Hasty Assessment

For instance, Pruitt’s family members also occasionally stayed in the condominium, according to a March 30 memo by the ethics official. That includes Pruitt’s daughter, McKenna, who was a White House intern for part of 2017.

Critics also have said Pruitt’s lease should have been reviewed by EPA ethics officers before he started renting the condo -- not subject to a hasty assessment only after the arrangement was widely reported in March.

Elkins said some of the condo-related allegations will be reviewed as part of still-ongoing investigations, but “some will be the impetus for new reviews.”

Beyer cheered word of the review. “The news that the inspector general is opening multiple new reviews into his misconduct assures that he will not be allowed off the hook so easily,” Beyer said of Pruitt in an email.

New Procedures

Separately on Friday, Pruitt issued a memo outlining a new “approval process for administrator expenses” designed to ensure that political appointees scrutinize any purchases over $5,000. The directive came a day after lawmakers grilled him about the installation of biometric locks and a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office.

Pruitt told Congress that career EPA staff oversaw the phone booth purchase from beginning to end, and had he known it would be so expensive, he wouldn’t have approved it.

In the memo, Pruitt said the EPA deputy administrator, chief financial officer and chief of staff -- all political appointees -- “will have final approval over expenditures by agency personnel over $5,000 made on my behalf to execute my official duties.”

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