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As new details emerge, Scott Pruitt’s housing arrangements come under scrutiny

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt listens as President Trump speaks during a meeting with members of the National Governors Association at the White House in February. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

Scott Pruitt’s unusual housing arrangement during much of last year — when he paid a lobbyist a modest sum each night for staying in a Capitol Hill condo she co-owned — has generated a new round of scrutiny about the financial decisions of the Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

Pruitt paid $50 for each night that he physically stayed in the condo, which sits a stone’s throw from the Capitol and is co-owned by health-care lobbyist Vicki Hart. According to people familiar with the arrangement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, Pruitt initially approached her husband, lawyer J. Steven Hart, about staying there during his confirmation process in 2017 and then extended the terms of the arrangement through last July.

The discounted housing arrangement, coupled with the fact that Pruitt’s regular travel to his home in Tulsa last year was covered by taxpayers, sparked immediate criticism and caused some discomfort among White House officials.

Collectively, according to EPA officials, Pruitt paid $6,100 to stay in the condo for roughly six months. Details initially were reported by ABC News and Bloomberg.  The former also reported that Pruitt’s daughter had stayed in the condo, which The Washington Post independently confirmed.

Hart is chairman and chief executive of the law firm Williams & Jensen and lobbies on energy, transportation, trade, tax and entertainment industry issues. Oklahoma public records show he and his wife donated $1,750 to Pruitt during his campaign for state attorney general. The records also show that the lawyer paid for a Pruitt fundraiser — a value of $1,616.43 — in fall 2014.

Hart said in an interview Friday that he “had no lobbying contact with EPA in 2017 or 2018” and that his firm was correcting a federal lobbying report that identified him as working for an entity with an interest in EPA regulation.

In an emailed statement, he described the rental as “a market-based, short-term lease for a condo owned partially by my wife. … I am an Oklahoman. Pruitt is a casual friend, but I have had no contact with him for many months except for a brief pass-by at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2018.”

Vicki Hart said in a separate statement Friday afternoon that she was not aware that Pruitt’s daughter might have been living in one of the condo’s rooms. “The rental agreement was with Scott Pruitt. If other people were using the bedroom or the living quarters, I was never told, and I never gave him permission to do that,” she said, adding that if true, Pruitt would owe additional rent.

Though the condo lacked some of the amenities of traditional rentals, such as a full kitchen or phone line, $50 per night is an exceedingly good deal for a prime location near the Capitol. According to the website Inside Airbnb, which compiles data from rentals on the lodging site, the average price of a private room in a D.C. home is $113 per night. In the Capitol Hill neighborhood where Pruitt was, the average is $142 per night.

EPA officials have argued that the rental did not constitute a gift or represent a conflict of interest. On Friday evening, the agency released a brief memo from its principal deputy general counsel — dated March 30 — that said its ethics office had reviewed Pruitt’s lease. He paid a “reasonable market value” for the condo space, given that the $50-a-night rate would have amounted to $1,500 a month had he occupied it full time, the attorney wrote.

In addition, the memo states that the lease “authorized use by the Administrator and his immediate family, specifically including his spouse and children.” Ultimately, “the lease was consistent with federal ethics regulations.”

At one point during his stay, agents in Pruitt’s security detail broke an exterior door at the condo after he had gone home sick and was not responding to calls, according to individuals familiar with the March 2017 incident. The EPA ultimately reimbursed the condo association $2,460 for the cost of the wood and glass door.

Pruitt repeatedly commuted home to Tulsa at taxpayer expense during this period. Between March and May 2017, an analysis of federal records by the Environmental Integrity Project showed he traveled for a total of 48 out of 92 days, and 43 of those travel days were spent in Oklahoma or heading to or from his home state.

J. Steven Hart is a personal friend and former colleague of Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, a former Williams & Jensen attorney who was a top Pruitt deputy before succeeding him. The firm represents Oklahoma Gas & Electric and received $400,000 for its work last year, according to EIP. The company is lobbying to scale back Barack Obama-era EPA rules limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants.

Hart said he did not work on the Oklahoma Gas & Electric account, and while his firm had two meetings with Pruitt since he joined Trump’s Cabinet, “I was not aware of them,” he said.

The lawyer represents multiple firms and organizations, including the Houston-based Cheniere Energy Inc. and the American Automotive Policy Council. Cheniere also is one of the few exporters of liquefied natural gas in the United States. Last December, Pruitt spent part of a visit to Morocco promoting U.S. natural gas exports.

Environmentalist activists are urging EPA’s inspector general to investigate his early living arrangement in Washington.

“Scott Pruitt sees no ethical problem getting favors from or doing favors for the industry interests who have helped bankroll his political career and are now lobbying him to roll back public-health safeguards,” Environmental Defense Fund Vice President Jeremy Symons said in a statement Friday. “We call on the EPA’s inspector general, who is already investigating Mr. Pruitt in three other cases, to immediately launch an investigation into gifts from lobbyists to Administrator Scott Pruitt in the form of deeply discounted living quarters.”

Since last summer, Pruitt’s housing costs have escalated dramatically.

After leaving the Capitol Hill condo co-owned by Vicki Hart in July, Pruitt moved to a one-bedroom apartment in an upscale complex in the U Street neighborhood, according to an official with knowledge of the move. One-bedroom units in the building run about $3,000 to $3,500 monthly.

Several months later, he moved again, signing another lease in a new luxury apartment complex back on Capitol Hill. One-bedroom apartments in the building, which is owned by a large development company, start at about $3,100 per month and go to nearly $4,500.

All the while, Pruitt has maintained his primary residence in Tulsa. The 5,518-square-foot mansion is valued at $1,180,000, according to property records.

Oklahoma public records and Pruitt’s federal financial disclosures show that he and his wife purchased the house in early 2012, securing an $850,000 mortgage. At his current interest rate, Pruitt would be paying nearly $5,500 monthly on his mortgage and property taxes.

The details about Pruitt’s unusual living arrangements are the latest in a series of disclosures about his spending habits. The Post has documented Pruitt’s extensive first-class travels on foreign and domestic trips during his first year in the administration. The EPA has attributed the elevated costs to security precautions undertaken because of the number of threats Pruitt has received — especially compared to his immediate predecessors — since joining the Cabinet in February 2017.

But records show that the administrator’s dozens of first-class flights and upscale hotel stays have meant big bills for taxpayers. For instance, a two-week stretch of travel in June by Pruitt and his aides cost more than $120,000, according to records obtained by The Post and EIP under the Freedom of Information Act. Another batch of expenditures recently released to a House oversight committee detailed at least an additional $68,000 in premium travel costs for Pruitt since August. Those figures do not include expenses for the personal security detail and aides who typically accompany him.

In addition, The Post has detailed how Pruitt’s office spent $43,000 on a private, soundproof phone booth for the administrator’s office last year — $25,000 on the custom-made booth and another $18,000 on prepping the space for it, including pouring a two-foot-thick concrete slab.

President Trump has been bothered by the bad headlines Pruitt’s ethical controversies have generated, but so far he is standing by the environmental chief, White House officials said.

Trump holds Pruitt in higher regard than other Cabinet secretaries who have come under fire, such as just-ousted Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin. That has helped Pruitt weather the storms so far, the officials said.

One adviser familiar with the president’s thinking said Trump admires Pruitt because he considers him an ideological warrior fighting to advance the president’s agenda and is loath to dismiss him and interrupt his work on such issues as deregulation.

Philip Rucker and Julie Tate contributed to this report. 

Read more:

Scott Pruitt’s $25,000 soundproof phone booth? It actually cost more like $43,000.

First-class travel distinguishes Scott Pruitt’s EPA tenure

New documents show nearly $68,000 in recent premium flights, hotel stays for EPA’s Pruitt