An emerging problem with the Trump administration is that allegations of impropriety against members of President Trump’s Cabinet can blend together. In part, that’s a function of the sheer volume of such incidents. In part, it’s a function of overlap — multiple allegations of expensive flights or expensive furniture against different people.
No one, though, has accumulated a list quite as extensive as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. In the past week, allegations have mounted at Pruitt’s feet faster than precipitation in a climate-change-fueled extreme weather event. And while this last week has been rough, the new stories have been tacked onto an existing list of concerns about Pruitt’s behavior in office.
Given that volume, we thought it worthwhile to articulate exactly what Pruitt stands accused of — as of Thursday afternoon, when the New York Times added a new entry to the list. If you’re reading this at any point after, say, 6 p.m. Thursday, we can’t assure you that this list is fully complete, given the recent speed at which these stories have been popping up.
Pruitt demanded 24-hour-a-day security. It’s important to know, coming into this, that Pruitt came to the EPA from an unusual position: as an EPA antagonist. While serving as attorney general in Oklahoma, he sued the EPA multiple times, often objecting to the agency’s actions on climate change. Since taking over administration of the EPA, he’s been deliberate about slashing environmental protections and undercutting the EPA’s efforts on climate change. This has made him unpopular.
Shortly after assuming his new position, he made an unusual request: 24/7 security protection. Past administrators have had “door to door” protection — security details that traveled with the administrators from home to EPA headquarters. Pruitt wanted to take that up a notch — at significant cost.
He installed a $25,000, soundproof phone system in his office. Last fall, Pruitt had a soundproof phone booth added to his office at the EPA. The phone booth itself cost about $25,000; including carving out space for it and installation, the total ended up near $43,000.
Why he needed this secure setup wasn’t fully explained. His staff insisted that secure facilities were the norm for federal agencies, but the EPA has a secure room elsewhere in the building that Pruitt could use, should he need to.
Pruitt flew first class at a cost of more than $100,000 — plus charter and military flights. The first Trump Cabinet member to resign his position was Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, whose use of private jets was an embarrassment to the administration. Pruitt didn’t regularly fly in private jets, but he also didn’t fly coach for much of his first year in his position. The cost, according to documents obtained by Politico, was more than $100,000. That also excludes charter and military flights that cost an additional $58,000. During one two-week stretch in June, costs for travel by Pruitt and his aides topped $120,000.
When the New Hampshire Union Leader asked why Pruitt flew first class to get to an event in the state, he said that he’d “had some incidents on travel dating back to when I first started serving in the March-April time frame,” a function of “a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment.”
“We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues,” he said.
The EPA explored hiring a private jet service at a cost of $100,000 a month. The Washington Post reported this week that the agency had considered protecting Pruitt from politically toxic incidents by hiring the service NetJets at a monthly rate. The total would have run into the six figures each month, and the idea was scrapped.
When he first moved to Washington, Pruitt was staying at a townhouse owned by the wife of a lobbyist, at a rate of $50 a night. Bloomberg News revealed last week that Pruitt’s first home in Washington was a super-cheap room in a condominium on Capitol Hill. The arrangement apparently involved Pruitt paying $50 a night and only on nights he actually stayed there. In total, a six-month period cost Pruitt $6,100. Rent for a room on Capitol Hill is typically several hundred dollars a month higher, at a minimum. While the lease covered only one room, Pruitt also had full use of the house’s common areas. Pruitt’s daughter McKenna Pruitt stayed there as well in a second bedroom. It’s not clear whether her rent was paid separately.
One of the owners of the building was Vicki Hart, a health-care lobbyist married to lobbyist J. Steven Hart, who represents companies with business before the EPA. The New York Times reported that while Pruitt was living in Vicki Hart’s condo, one of J. Steven Hart’s clients had a pipeline project approved by the agency. In 2014, the Harts held a fundraiser for Pruitt.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who lived on the lower level of the condo, was unsparing in her assessment.
“This is just corrupt,” she said. “I have a salary. I pay for a place to stay. And it would be a sweetheart deal if I only had to pay my mortgage on the days I’m there.”
When the story first emerged, the EPA’s top ethics official quickly cleared the arrangement — later clarifying that he was only considering the cost of the lease and not any other circumstances of the situation, such as the presence of Pruitt’s daughter.
Pruitt asked a subordinate to help him find housing, apparently violating ethics rules. When the administrator left that condo in August, it took him a month to find new housing. Millan Hupp, who’d worked with Pruitt in Oklahoma, was tasked with trying to find him somewhere else to live. That, a former official with the Office of Government Ethics told The Post, was a violation of ethics rules.
“There’s a general prohibition against misusing government resources, and employees are government resources,” said former acting director and general counsel Don Fox. “It’s clearly personal, and frankly, it doesn’t matter if she did it 11 a.m. on a Tuesday or at 2 p.m. on a Saturday.”
When that subordinate and another employee were denied raises, Pruitt apparently used a loophole in the law to significantly boost their pay. Hupp and another EPA employee, Sarah Greenwalt, came to the EPA with Pruitt. The Atlantic reported Tuesday that Pruitt had requested raises for both of them but they were rejected by the White House Presidential Personnel Office (which had to approve the raises since the two were political appointees).
Undeterred, Pruitt allegedly found a loophole. The Safe Drinking Water Act allows the administrator to hire as many as 30 people, the Atlantic reported, so Pruitt simply rehired both women through that provision. Greenwalt got a 53 percent raise. Hupp’s was 33 percent.
In an interview with Fox News, Pruitt denied having approved the move. That interview was apparently in defiance of the White House, which asked that he not talk to the media. Update: The Post reported Thursday night that Pruitt did in fact approve the raises, though he didn’t personally enact them.
Pruitt exiled internal critics of his spending and leadership to new jobs or demoted them. On Thursday, the Times reported that at least five officials with the EPA, including one Trump appointee, faced repercussions after confronting Pruitt about his management of the agency. One was placed on leave without pay. Two were moved to jobs with less authority. One was told to find a new job and ended up at American University. The fifth, a member of Pruitt’s security team, lost his gun and badge.
The concerns they raised included that $100,000-a-month NetJets proposal, the soundproof booth and a plan to spend $70,000 to replace two desks in Pruitt’s suite. The security official questioned Pruitt’s request to use sirens and flashing lights as his motorcade traveled in Washington — including at least once to a favored French restaurant in the city.
Trump continued to express his confidence in Pruitt when asked Thursday.
“I think he’s done a fantastic job,” Trump said. “I think he’s done an incredible job. He’’s been very courageous. It hasn’t been easy, but I think he’s done a fantastic job.”
Was he bothered by the various reports about Pruitt’s behavior?
“I have to look at them,” Trump replied.