The latest revelations that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt assigned a federal employee to procure employment for his spouse show that he has embraced the spirit of the swamp more fully than any other Trump Cabinet member. Pruitt’s incessant use of his public office and its employees for personal gain reveals a systemic pattern of corruption — one that has a corrosive impact on the integrity of EPA programs and services. As former government ethics officials, it’s clear to us that he can no longer effectively or meaningfully lead the agency he was appointed to head.
The most recent allegations against Pruitt involve the use of his staff to seek a job for his wife from conservative political allies, some of whom recoiled from the obvious conflict. That comes on top of last week’s news that Pruitt had ordered staff to make arrangements with the Trump International Hotel in Washington to buy him a used mattress and to seek business opportunities for his wife from Chick-fil-A and Concordia. Who among us wouldn’t want the head of a government agency to hook them up with a fast-food franchise, a $2,000, three-day event-planning gig or some job — apparently any will do, regardless of qualifications?
Between us, we have counseled Cabinet members and other senior government officials for a half-century. That includes two presidents. We have never seen anything like this — not even close. When we were working together in the Obama White House, even a single one of these actions — a conflicted request to find a job for a spouse or any of Pruitt’s others — would have been a firing offense. The totality of Pruitt’s offenses is beyond the pale.
This conduct flagrantly violates the prohibitions on using public office for private gain. Pruitt long ago exceeded the seriousness of the travel transgressions that led to the ouster of Tom Price at the Department of Health and Services or David Shulkin at the Department of Veterans Affairs. For example, when Pruitt agreed to speak at the same Concordia event at which his wife was compensated for her event planning services, he triggered possible financial conflicts of interest under 18 U.S.C. 208. He also faces personal conflicts under the government-wide standards of conduct, at 5 CFR 2635.502, that require federal government employees to recuse from participation in specific party matters involving a spouse’s employer or in which a member of their household has a financial interest.
All of this is just one part of a litany of other, prior ethics problems. There was the $50- a-night sweetheart arrangement for a room rental from the spouse of an EPA lobbyist, and the follow-up work carried out by EPA staff to find another rental apartment for Pruitt. These activities also likely violated ethics rules prohibiting gifts from EPA lobbyists to Pruitt, misuse of a subordinate’s official time and accepting gifts of personal services from subordinates. Pruitt followed up these actions by giving some of his staff tens of thousands of dollars in raises using questionable hiring authority, after the White House declined to approve the raises using the proper procedures.
Nor should we forget the misuse of government travel resources to support military jet travel from Cincinnati to New York City, first-class flights from Washington to New York and an overseas trip to Morocco for marginally related EPA work. Pruitt also tapped a lobbyist and the head of a conservative judicial group to facilitate and accompany him on his trips to Morocco and Rome, allowing them to personally benefit from their proximity to a senior Cabinet official. Pruitt invited the head of the Federalist Society to accompany him into an official meeting on environmental policy with a Vatican official, which could be construed as an improper endorsement of the group’s agenda.
Pruitt has also allegedly abused the federal treasury by spending $1,560 on expensive ($130 each) fountain pens to give to foreign dignitaries, using his security detail to locate his favorite moisturizing lotion, procuring a $43,000 soundproof phone booth, and accepting a security detail triple the size of previous administrators’. Perhaps the worst allegations of all are that EPA employees who demurred or tried to blow the whistle appear to have been retaliated against for doing it.
By any measure, Pruitt has failed the simplest test of leadership — that posed by President Abraham Lincoln: “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Conflict-of-interest laws are in place to prevent and deter corruption. Corruption has a cost because it deprives Americans of the services and programs to which we are entitled. How can any American — no matter what he or she may think of environmental regulation — now feel any confidence that EPA is functioning to serve anyone’s interests besides Pruitt’s? Even erstwhile far-right supporters like the American Future Fund, a dark money group sometimes funded by the Koch brothers, and the Fox host Laura Ingraham are now calling for him to go, and rightly so.
But perhaps the worst damage is to the employees of EPA and other government agencies. Pruitt’s continued presence at the EPA sends a powerful message to government employees everywhere that he, President Trump and congressional leadership believe Pruitt’s unethical behavior is not only condoned but also should be a model. Trump, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and all the others in power who fail to hold Pruitt accountable for his ethical transgressions equally fail Lincoln’s leadership test.