Among the ethics scandals now swirling around Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is the recent disclosure that he leased a room in a D.C. condominium from the wife of an energy lobbyist.
For about six months in 2017, Pruitt leased a room in a condo co-owned by the woman in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, a stately enclave where the white dome of the eponymous building can be seen looming above brick rowhouses on many streets.
He paid a $50-a-night rate for the room, which amounts to roughly $1,500 a month, but had struck an arrangement with the lessor to pay only for the nights he stayed there. In actuality, he paid about $6,100 over the approximately six-month period, or about $1,000 a month.
The accommodation has been the subject of much media coverage since it was disclosed last month. On Friday, the Hill reported that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was probing the housing arrangement.
Federal ethics regulations prohibit executive branch employees from accepting gifts given because of their positions or from “certain interested sources,” of which an apartment rented at a below-market rate could qualify. The employees are also prohibited by impartiality rules from taking part in certain activities that give “even the appearance of impropriety.”
The Post contacted real estate agents with expertise in the market in Capitol Hill and D.C. at large with a simple question: Would they consider $1,500 for a room in a condo in the neighborhood’s portion near the Capitol to be market rate?
Nancy Simmons, the president of the D.C.-area apartment-search service Apartment Detectives, provided The Washington Post with a sample of recently rented listings in the area around the condominium in which Pruitt leased a room. The two-bedroom apartments in the area rented from $2,550 to $4,300, or about $1,275 to $2,150 if split evenly. The average of the seven listings she provided was $3,300, or $1,650 per room.
The $4,300 listing was a two-bedroom apartment just steps away from the one Pruitt rented. A selection of one-bedroom apartments she provided showed prices ranging from $1,525 to $2,400.
What made Pruitt’s listing unusual, Simmons said, was a provision in the lease that Pruitt was responsible for paying only for days of “actual occupancy,” meaning he did not have to pay rent when he was out of town or otherwise away.
“That’s bizarre,” she said. “Typically, when you rent something, you rent something at a monthly rate, unless it was like an Airbnb scenario.”
Susan Berger, a real estate agent from Evers & Co. whose late husband, Sandy, was President Bill Clinton’s second national security adviser, agreed that the lease was “very strange.”
“I've never seen it before,” she said.
Kevin Minoli, the EPA’s principal deputy general counsel, had determined that the apartment rental did not constitute a gift because it was a “reasonable market value,” citing Airbnb listings in the area that rented rooms for as low as $55 a day or less.
Pruitt, too, has compared the situation to the home rental app.
“This was like an Airbnb situation,” he told Fox News this week. “When I was not there, the landlord, they had access to the entirety of the facility. ... When I was there, I only had access to a room.”
A search of Airbnb in the area did find more than a dozen bedrooms listed for similar prices. Some appeared to be inactive, and others typically charged as much as double that, though they were occasionally available for as low as $50 a night. Many of these apartments were often tightly booked for months in advance, making it unlikely a renter could spontaneously come and go as they pleased without the room being booked by someone else when they weren't there.
“That’s the thing. You couldn’t leave your stuff there and book it for the month if you’re not paying for the month, so that’s unusual,” Simmons said.
Lindsay Reishman, a senior vice president at the real estate company Compass, said that on Capitol Hill “$1,500 is not a glamorous one bedroom. It’s like a basement level one-bedroom that’s not really up to snuff, or a nice studio.”
Additional bedrooms with other roommates could bring down the price, he said.
“If it was a group house, with four or five bedrooms, I would guess it would still be $1,300 or $1,400 a room,” he said.
He said it would be hard if not impossible to find a two-bedroom apartment in the area for $1,500 and described the occupancy provision as “a little bit out of the ordinary,” saying he had never heard of such an arrangement before.
“You could have an Airbnb but not something where you just have the right to use it when you need to and only pay during the time it’s used,” he said. “That’s a tenant-friendly agreement for sure.”
Multiple EPA officials have confirmed to the Washington Post that Pruitt’s adult daughter stayed in a second bedroom for a time when she was working at the White House. It is not believed that anyone else stayed in the second bedroom for other portions of Pruitt's stay at the condo.
Minoli wrote in a memo this week that his first assessment was based on the terms of the lease, not including potential activities that did not comply with it.
“Evaluating those questions would have required factual information that was not before us and the Review does not address those questions,” he wrote.
Justina Fugh, a senior ethics attorney at the EPA, has said she did not have “the full picture” when she signed off on an after-the-fact ethics ruling on the housing situation.
“Advice that’s given by an ethics official is only as good as the information that’s provided,” she told The Post.
Minoli also said he did not rule on whether the housing arrangement had violated the impartiality rule.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.