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A top government ethics official wants the Environmental Protection Agency to address any violations linked to Administrator Scott Pruitt’s spending habits, his condo lease from a lobbyist and his personnel decisions.
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.
“Only after the existence of the lease was reported in the press did he provide EPA ethics advisors with limited information about the lease,” Apol wrote. “He then received, based on the incomplete information he provided, an after-the-fact opinion that the lease did not constitute a gift.”
Apol also noted that “additional information has now come to light that calls into question whether the earlier determination that the Administrator paid market value for the use he made of the apartment would still be valid.”
In the letter, Apol cited other lines of inquiry, including Pruitt’s first-class travel expenses, round-the-clock security and steep salary increases that recently were granted to two top aides without White House approval. He said Pruitt’s frequent trips to his home in Oklahoma, often at taxpayer expense, “raise concerns about whether the Administrator is using his public office for personal gain in violation of ethics rules.” In addition, Apol wrote that reports that an aide at EPA helped shop for a house for Pruitt also may have been a misuse of his position.
Apol called reports that Pruitt reassigned or demoted staff member who questioned his spending and other actions “extremely concerning.”
“If true, it is hard to imagine any action that could more effectively undermine an agency’s integrity than punishing or marginalizing employees who strive to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations that safeguard that integrity,” he wrote.
Apol said that his office “expects that EPA will review and analyze the alleged conduct described above” and “take appropriate action” if it finds any violations.
EPA’s Minoli answered Apol’s letter with one of his own, noting that agency ethics officials “lack independent investigatory authority,” according to a copy of the response reviewed by The Washington Post. Rather, Minoli wrote, his office has a “long-standing practice” of referring such inquiries to the EPA inspector general.
Between the inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, at least 5 inquiries have been launched into Pruitt’s actions. They include audits of his travel practices and the costs of his protective detail, as well as Pruitt’s purchase of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth and hiring practices under authority granted by the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendment.
Separately on Monday, EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr. confirmed that he would open a review into whether Samantha Dravis, the Office of Policy’s departing associate administrator, had failed to work for much of the time between last November and January while still receiving compensation as a full-time employee.
In a letter to Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Elkins wrote that despite his office’s fiscal and statutory constraints, “we have determined the issues in your letter are within the authority of the OIG to review and we will do so.”
Carper had asked the inspector general to look into the matter last week, saying the allegations “raise questions as to whether EPA is adhering to its corrective actions regarding employee time and attendance” that were adopted after an agency employee was found to have defrauded the agency in 2013.
The agency declined to immediately comment Monday night, and Dravis could not be reached for comment. But in an interview last week, she called Carper’s allegations were unfounded and said she was prepared to offer evidence that would rebut them.
With the flurry of issues surrounding Pruitt, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week that the administration is undertaking a “full review.” But it remains unclear what form that has taken or when it will conclude.
President Trump tweeted Saturday night that he supported his EPA chief, arguing that Pruitt’s 24-7 security, travel costs and housing arrangements were justified and adding, “Scott is doing a great job!”
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.