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Opinion Ethics and the EPA: How one government office helped turn up the heat on Scott Pruitt

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt in Washington on Feb. 26. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Very few Americans know what the U.S. Office of Government Ethics — which sounds like an oxymoron, some would say — is, what it does or who runs it. More Americans should acquaint themselves with the OGE and its acting director David  J. Apol. They might come to appreciate how a small government office headed by a longtime civil servant can make a difference.

According to the OGE website, the office’s mission is to:

“Provide overall leadership and oversight of the executive branch ethics program designed to prevent and resolve conflicts of interest. The U.S. Office of Government Ethics oversees the executive branch ethics program and works with a community of ethics practitioners made up of nearly 5,000 ethics officials in more than 130 agencies to implement that program. When government decisions are made free from conflicts of interest, the public can have greater confidence in the integrity of executive branch programs and operations. OGE’s mission is part of a system of institutional integrity in the executive branch.”

With that, you would think OGE employees might throw up their hands in disgust, and take long lunches and plenty of sick days during the Trump presidency. Ethics in this administration?!

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Well, Apol showed it is possible to preserve ethical standards, even in this administration. By taking his job seriously, he may have given Congress the poke it needed to be more diligent in its oversight duties.

The Post reported:

In a letter dated Friday and released Monday, David J. Apol, the acting director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, took the atypical step of telling EPA officials that several recent ethics questions deserve further scrutiny. “Public trust demands that all employees act in the public interest, and free from any actual or perceived conflicts,” he wrote to Kevin Minoli, the EPA’s principal deputy general counsel and the agency’s top ethics official.
Specifically, Apol mentioned the controversy surrounding Pruitt’s $50-a-night condo rental last year from a Washington lobbyist, noting that the EPA chief had not sought an ethics opinion on the arrangement in advance.

Former White House ethics counsel Norman Eisen told me what happened next. “Apol rightly called on EPA ethics officials to take a fresh look at all of the Pruitt ethics scandal allegations — the luxury lobbyist condo, the first class and unnecessary travel, the excessive pay raises and worst of all the retaliation against those who sought to raise questions,” Eisen said. “The response, unfortunately, was a cop out; EPA ethicists passed the buck to the EPA inspector general instead of also trying to do what they can to get to the bottom of things.”

While the EPA ethics personnel say that they lack investigative power, Eisen argued that “they have the power of the moral high ground, and they could at least try making inquiries, and updating or even withdrawing their flawed advice.”

Nevertheless, the inspector general is in the thick of the ethics investigations. Moreover, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been jolted into taking real action. To date he had spoken disapprovingly of Pruitt’s excess (“I don’t have a lot of patience for that kind of stuff. . . . You’ve got to be a good steward.”), but had been busy with his own book tour. Democrats have, for some time, pleaded with Gowdy to schedule hearings on the EPA and to issue formal subpoenas when the administration provides nonresponsive answers to inquiries.

On Thursday, a group of Democratic senators and congressmen sent letters to both President Trump and to Pruitt detailing the revelations provided by whistleblower Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations. Chmielewski describes an ethical toxic-waste dump at the agency — including threats of retaliation, extravagant spending, misuse of government resources and more.

On Friday, the majority members on the Oversight Committee sprang into action. Politico reports:

House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said Friday he’s expanding his probe into the alleged ethical and spending abuses by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt one day after his staff met for several hours with a former EPA aide who was pushed out of the agency.
Gowdy’s latest letter is a further sign of the deepening bipartisan scrutiny facing President Donald Trump’s environmental chief, whose critics accuse him of excessive spending on travel, vehicles, staff raises and luxe security features such as a $43,000 soundproof phone booth.

Gowdy’s letter also asks that Chmielewski, Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson, along with Pasquale Perrotta (who heads Pruitt’s security detail and has been accused of ringing up huge bills, intimidating other EPA officials and abusing the contracting process), as well as two employees given outsize raises (including Millan Hupp, who helped Pruitt search for housing), all be made available for transcribed interviews.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House oversight panel, told me, “We are certainly heartened that Chairman Gowdy now seems to be starting to understand what we have been saying for weeks — that we need real, sustained, credible oversight of EPA and Mr. Pruitt.” He added, “That’s our job, after all. We will see if the committee actually gets the documents we asked for — which has been a real problem all year long — or whether the agency will be let off the hook yet again.” A Democratic staffer ruefully observed, “Democrats have been doing all the heavy lifting on this entire investigation and Chairman Gowdy seems to come along only when the evidence is literally overflowing and spoon-fed by a top Trump administration official.”

Well, maybe even Gowdy will agree to a hearing or two. If the chairman takes his oversight role seriously and wields subpoena power as aggressively as he did during the Benghazi hearings, the public may finally learn the extent of Pruitt’s malfeasance.