The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pruitt is out at EPA, but ethics probes might live on

The Fix's Aaron Blake breaks down why President Trump supported scandal-plagued EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for so long. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Scott Pruitt’s portraits have begun to come down at the Environmental Protection Agency, which he helmed until Friday. His official Twitter account has gone dark. And the posters inside the EPA highlighting the Oklahoman’s policy priorities — flanked by coal miners and other supporters — have been replaced by ones featuring a smiling Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator

But at least one vestige of Pruitt’s rocky tenure will continue for the foreseeable future: some of the more than a dozen inquiries into his spending and management practices. While a few of them — including the two informal reviews inside the White House — might be shelved, others, such as a probe by a key House committee, are likely to continue.

“Although the ability to impose employment-related discipline ends when an employee has resigned, that doesn’t prevent an Inspector General [or other government entities] from continuing an investigation,” Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in legal ethics, wrote in an email.

Only one Pruitt-related inquiry has resulted in formal findings so far: The Government Accountability Office sent a letter to lawmakers in April concluding that the $43,000 the EPA spent on a soundproof phone booth in the administrator’s office violated federal spending laws.

Pruitt’s lawyer Cleta Mitchell, who helped establish a legal defense fund for him while he headed the agency, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Pruitt and some of his former aides have already had to spend considerable sums on lawyers in connection with the inquiries, especially a probe underway at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Unlike the former administrator, none of his previous staffers have legal funds to offset their expenses.

Democrats on the House panel are pressing to continue the inquiry, which has already yielded more public revelations about Pruitt’s conduct than any other investigation.

“The Oversight Committee needs to continue our investigation until we receive all the documents we requested, identify all the abuses [Pruitt] engaged in, determine who else was involved, and offer recommendations to try to prevent these kinds of things from ever happening again,” the panel’s ranking Democrat, Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), said in a statement.

The panel’s chairman, Trey Gowdy (R-S.C. ), also plans to proceed. Later this week, committee investigators are slated to formally interview Pruitt’s most prominent public accuser, former EPA deputy chief of staff for operations Kevin Chmielewski.

Chmielewski said in an interview that he also had a conference call Monday with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which is investigating claims by Chmielewski and others that they experienced retaliation after objecting to the ways Pruitt ran the EPA.

“The train has left the station, so I can’t ask for it to turn around and come back,” Chmielewski said, adding that he recently quit his part-time job at the Sunset Grille and Teasers Bar in Ocean City because he has been so busy responding to different investigators and the press.

Robert Kelner, who chairs the election and political law practice group at Covington & Burling, said there is no “guiding principle” as to whether a congressional inquiry or one underway at an agency’s inspector general office continues once a public official resigns. When it comes to Congress, he added, “it’s entirely a political question, and so it’s really in the discretion of the chair whether to continue the investigation and whether to issue a report.”

“Sometimes the minority will proceed even if the majority does not proceed,” Kelner added.

Several experts said the independent Office of Special Counsel, which has interviewed half a dozen current and former EPA officials, is likely to continue examining charges that Pruitt and his aides retaliated against employees who questioned his management decisions.

“OSC cannot comment on or confirm any open investigations,” the office’s communications director, Zachary Kurz, said in an email. However, Kurz added that investigations into prohibited personnel practices typically continue even after an official leaves federal service because the office often pursues corrective action for the employees alleging harm.

Pruitt’s short EPA tenure generated a heavy workload for the agency’s inspector general, which is now determining how to proceed. The EPA watchdog announced audits of Pruitt’s first-class air travel, his 24/7 protective detail and large pay raises for two political staffers. At the request of Congress, the office also agreed to investigate whether government aides helped Pruitt search for housing and whether staffers who questioned his choices were reassigned or demoted, among other ethics issues.

“We are assessing and evaluating our work relating to Administrator Pruitt in light of his resignation,” Jennifer Kaplan, a spokeswoman for EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr., wrote in an email.

Kelner said that IGs often, “but not always,” stop conducting investigations once a federal employee leaves office. But a number of factors can influence such decisions, he said, including whether the review involves other employees at the agency or could lead to a referral to another agency, such as the Justice Department.

“I don’t think there’s any guiding principle,” he said. “It really depends on the circumstances of a particular case.”

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