Donald Trump arrived in Washington claiming he would “drain the swamp” of its corrupt ways, a pledge no one with an IQ higher than that of a turnip could possibly have believed. But while Trump quickly monetized the presidency for the benefit of himself and his family, for those beneath him on the institutional ladder, truly luxuriating in the corrupt possibilities of federal office can be a challenge.
After all, you have a job you’re at least nominally committed to carrying out, there are pesky rules and regulations that you’re supposed to adhere to, and you have to worry about oversight from inspectors general and (now and again) Congress, not to mention journalists who are always poking their nose in your business.
Which is why Scott Pruitt’s achievement is so remarkable. In an administration full of venal self-dealers (none more than the man at the top), the Environmental Protection Agency chief has emerged as easily the most corrupt senior official in the federal government — that we know of anyway.
Just in the last 24 hours, we’ve gotten two new stories about Priutt’s utter lack of ethics and eagerness to use government for his own benefit and that of his friends, one concerning his previous career in Oklahoma and one about his current position at the EPA, which land atop a growing pile of scandals.
First, the New York Times reported that when he was an Oklahoma state senator, Pruitt “bought a home in the state capital with a registered lobbyist who was pushing for changes to the state’s workers’ compensation rules — changes that Mr. Pruitt championed in the legislature.” Quite naturally, he never reported the relationship. Not only that, the house was purchased at a steep discount from a telecommunication lobbyist.
Second, we have this remarkable story from the Post’s own Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis:
After taking office last year, Pruitt drew up a list of at least a dozen countries he hoped to visit and urged aides to help him find official reasons to travel, according to four people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency deliberations. Pruitt then enlisted well-connected friends and political allies to help make the trips happen.
Those well-connected friends and political allies included lobbyists and others with interests before the agency Pruitt leads. On the other hand, travel does broaden the mind, so perhaps we should commend Pruitt for his eagerness to see the world.
There’s more to be learned as journalists go back and examine Pruitt’s early career in Oklahoma. CNN reports today that Pruitt “paid himself nearly $65,000 in reimbursements from his two campaigns for Oklahoma attorney general, a move at least one election watchdog has sharply criticized as being recorded so vaguely that there was no way to tell if such payments were lawful.”
But since he came to Washington, Pruitt has managed to accumulate an extraordinarily lengthy series of questionable episodes and outright scandals. Let’s run them down:
• Pruitt had an unusual arrangement in which he rented a room in a Capitol Hill townhouse for $50 a night from the wife of a corporate lobbyist, but didn’t have to pay rent when he wasn’t in town. Despite initial denials that the husband lobbied the EPA, we learned later that he had.
• In the apparent belief that environmentalist spies had broken into his office and installed listening devices (or something), Pruitt’s office has been swept for bugs; the contractor hired to do the sweep is a buddy of Pruitt’s chief of security.
• That sweep was apparently insufficient, because Pruitt demanded that a soundproof booth be installed in the office so he could make super-secret phone calls, at a cost of $43,000.
• Pruitt has insisted on traveling first class, supposedly because of security concerns; he justified it by saying that “We live in a very toxic environment politically.” After multiple news stories about his swanky seats, he announced that henceforth he’d fly coach.
• Pruitt has also spent tens of thousands of dollars on charter and military flights, because sometimes he’s just got to get where he’s going.
• Pruitt’s aides explored leasing a private jet for him to use in his travels, but nixed the plan when they could not justify the cost.
• Unlike previous EPA administrators, Pruitt demanded a round-the-clock security detail including 18 agents and costing the taxpayers millions of dollars. He takes taxpayer-funded security on personal trips to places like Disneyland. This is nothing new for him; when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, he reassigned investigative agents to serve as his driver and bodyguard.
• Pruitt asked for large salary increases for two of his aides; when the White House refused, he found an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act that allowed him to give them the increases without permission.
• Pruitt sent an aide to go house-hunting for him, an apparent violation of ethics rules.
• Pruitt asked for a bulletproof car, and told his security detail to use their sirens and flashing lights to get him out of traffic on his way to dinner, in violation of ordinary protocols.
• Officials who have questioned some of Pruitt’s spending and other practices have been fired or demoted.
• Pruitt created a task force to oversee the Superfund program and installed to lead it a banker who had been banned from the banking industry and had no environmental experience, but had loaned Scott Pruitt over a million dollars.
• Pruitt directed EPA staff to explore establishing an office in his home town of Tulsa that would include “a conference room, secure parking, would be able to accommodate 24/7 security, and included a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) for secure communications.” While SCIFs are commonly used in the White House, the CIA, or the Pentagon, you don’t find them in EPA offices.
These are just the scandals relating to Pruitt’s personal matters and obvious desire to be treated like he’s the president and not a member of the cabinet. There’s another list to be compiled of Pruitt’s official actions to eviscerate federal oversight of the environment; indeed, the EPA has never had an administrator so emphatically opposed to the very idea of environmental protection.
It’s that crusade against any effort to ensure that Americans have clean air, land, and water that is keeping Pruitt in his job for now; apparently President Trump just couldn’t be happier with Pruitt’s performance. But if there’s one rule in the Trump administration when it comes to corruption, it’s this: Do whatever you want, so long as you don’t embarrass the boss. The question is, how many more of these scandals will it take for Trump to decide that Pruitt has to go? Because you have to assume there are more coming.