Reporter Jessica Smith took advantage of access to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Wednesday to ask him about the latest in a seemingly endless series of ethically dubious actions he has taken since being sworn in. In this case, it was The Post’s report that he’d asked a staffer to contact the head of the fast food chain Chick-fil-A seeking a meeting. The conversation would not focus on, say, pollution on the part of the chicken-sandwich giant. Instead, the apparent intent was that Pruitt use the opportunity to advocate for his wife to be granted one of the chain’s lucrative franchises.
Pruitt’s response to Smith was not contrition or denial. His response was to talk about how great Chick-fil-A is.
“With great change comes, you know, I think, opposition. I mean, there’s significant change that’s happening across — not only at the EPA but across this administration, and it’s needed,” he said. “Look, my wife is an entrepreneur herself. I love, she loves, we love — Chick-fil-A is a franchise of faith, and it’s one of the best in the country, and so that’s something we were very excited about. So — we need more of them in Tulsa, and we need more of them across the country.”
There are two ways in which Pruitt’s request probably violated federal rules, Lawrence Noble, former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission, told me by phone on Wednesday afternoon.
The first is that federal regulations prohibit Pruitt — or any other federal employee — from asking his staff to do personal work for him.
“The idea here is when you have an employee working for you, when you have a subordinate working for you when you’re in the government, you may not ask that subordinate to do anything outside of their regular job because there’s an inherent coercion in your position,” Noble said. Such requests are explicitly barred in the statute. It doesn’t matter if he’d asked his staffer to do it on her private time — it’s still coercion.
If the staffer completed the request during work hours, of course, the issue is more severe. “By doing that,” Noble noted, “they’re using government resources for his or his wife’s personal benefit.”
A violation of that prohibition probably happened anyway, Noble pointed out: Pruitt was allegedly using his official position to ask for a private benefit for his spouse.
“That’s a direct violation on the prohibition on the use of public office for private gain,” Noble said.
All of this was clear from The Post’s report on Tuesday. That interview with Smith, though, probably made the situation worse.
“Rather than saying, you know that was a mistake, I shouldn’t have done that, or, it was totally innocent or saying nothing, he tries to defend it by touting the excellence of Chick-fil-A as a franchise. It’s as if he just doesn’t care,” Noble said. Instead of contrition, Pruitt “doubled and tripled down” on his actions, Noble added. “It’s really blatant.”
In most administrations, Pruitt would probably already have been fired for his past actions. In another administration, violating prohibitions on using public office for private gain could result in several punishments, including a reprimand, firing and even actual prosecution. (Henry Cisneros, who served in Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, was prosecuted and pleaded guilty to lying to investigators after an ethics investigation.)
“These are serious violations,” Noble said. “But what’s most disturbing is they are serial violations. It’s not like he made one mistake one time. What we see here is a pattern of either complete ignorance of the ethics rules or a complete disregard of them. There’s just an almost pathological pattern here of just doing whatever he wants to do.”
That Pruitt has faced no repercussions for the questionable acts that have already been revealed probably offers no incentive to change his behavior, Noble said.
“Since he clearly has no internal gyroscope on these issues, no internal guidelines, no internal sense of what’s right and wrong when it comes to ethics,” Noble said, “he’s going to keep doing this because he’s done it so many times and nothing has happened to him. There’s no reason not to do it, from his perspective.”
This new Chick-fil-A revelation, coming on top of others about Pruitt’s use of taxpayer funds for expensive improvements to his office, questionable living arrangements, high travel costs, excessive security detail and more, may be the most significant. That his on-video response seems to have tacitly acknowledged the allegation won’t reduce the scrutiny the situation has received.
Noble joked about Pruitt’s response to Smith and the change the administrator said had come to Washington.
“It may be true that the great change is a total lack of ethics,” Noble said, “but I think he probably meant it in a different way.”
This article was corrected to fix Noble’s identification.