Embattled EPA Chief Target of Fresh Questions in New Memo

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt says a government review last week cleared him of ethical issues tied to a $50-a-night condo rental from a lobbyist last year.

It didn’t.

Kevin Minoli, the designated EPA ethics official who conducted the review, says it only scrutinized whether the condo lease ran afoul of federal ethics regulations prohibiting certain gifts. He concluded it didn’t.

Embattled EPA Chief Target of Fresh Questions in New Memo

But Minoli, in a new memo obtained by Bloomberg News, says he wasn’t asked to and didn’t examine whether the arrangement violated other ethics rules, nor "whether the actual use of the space was consistent" with the lease agreement.

“A federal employee must comply with the standards of ethical conduct, including those related to impartiality, at all times," Minoli wrote in the 24-page memo dated April 4.

The disclosure of the condo rental, and revelations that the EPA used an obscure law to boost the pay of two Pruitt aides over the White House’s objections, have spurred calls for an investigation by Congress and the EPA’s watchdog. Although President Donald Trump assured Pruitt his job was safe on Monday, the White House said Wednesday it is conducting its own review of the rental arrangement.

Trump on Wednesday privately asked some lawmakers to share their opinions of Pruitt, said two people familiar with the requests. The president didn’t signal any intention to fire Pruitt, said the people, who asked not to be named discussing private conversations with the president

Trump asked the lawmakers how they thought Pruitt was doing politically, the people said.

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 lobbyists with ownership interests in the condo.

"The impartiality regulation addresses when you must recuse from matters involving a person with whom you have a ‘covered relationship,’" Shaub said on Twitter. "This lease gave him a covered relationship not only with the landlord but also with anyone in the landlord’s firm because the definition of ‘person’ includes both an individual and the individual’s employer."

Minoli’s latest memo underscores the limitations of the ethics review that Pruitt and his defenders have cast as clearing the administrator of all possible ethical concerns tied to the rental.

The unconventional lease terms permitted Pruitt to pay $50 only on days he actually occupied his bedroom in the condo, located just steps from the U.S. Capitol. He paid a total of $6,100 over a roughly six-month period last year, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg News.

Pruitt told the Washington Times in an interview this week that career ethics officials at the EPA "reviewed the lease and have determined there are no ethical concerns -- that it’s market value."

Pruitt told the Washington Times he was living out of a suitcase and his access was confined to one room in the condo. Under the lease terms, Pruitt had to leave his bedroom door unlocked and did not have use of common areas, which continued to be a venue for dinner parties and meetings during his stay.

The EPA’s first ethics review was conducted hastily last week, after news reports that Pruitt had rented the bedroom from the spouse of an energy lobbyist whose firm has clients with matters before the EPA. Health care lobbyist Vicki Hart, who co-owns the condo through a limited liability corporation, rented the bedroom to Pruitt. Her husband, J. Steven Hart, is the president of Williams & Jensen, a firm with a stable of energy industry clients including Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co.

Under federal ethics laws, 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.

In an interview with Fox News Wednesday, Pruitt was indignant when asked if a low-priced condo rental arrangement with a lobbyist friend was in sync with President Donald Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign vow. “I don’t think that that’s even remotely fair to ask that question,” Pruitt told Fox.

The new EPA memo asserts that there are seven comparable private bedrooms within a six-block radius of Pruitt’s temporary quarters that can be rented for $55 or less per night, a basis for the ethics officer’s conclusion that last year’s rental was fair "market value" and did not constitute a prohibited gift. While Pruitt was allowed to leave “limited” personal belongings, such as some clothing, at the site even on nights he was not paying $50 to occupy the room, under the lease, that did not appear to factor into the ethics analysis.

The April 4 memorandum reaffirms the original decision while clarifying what was beyond the initial review’s scope, Minoli said in an emailed statement.

On Wednesday, a top Pruitt ally at the EPA, Samantha Dravis, the associate administrator of the agency’s office of policy, resigned, according to an EPA official who asked for anonymity because the departure hadn’t yet been made public. Dravis came to the EPA after serving with Pruitt when she was general counsel of the Republican Attorneys General Association.

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