THE LIGHTBULB

Scott Pruitt is gone from the Environmental Protection Agency. But internal agency investigations into his behavior will march on. 

The EPA's Office of the Inspector General said Thursday that several of the inquiries into the spending, hiring and record-keeping activities of Pruitt and his aides will continue despite the former administrator's resignation last week after months of controversy.

Kentia Elbaum, a spokeswoman for the watchdog office, said five audits in progress would continue. They include probes into Pruitt's boost in security staffhis habit of flying first-class and his use of a drinking-water law to grant high pay raises to two close aides. Separately, the office will complete a “factual record” for an April 2017 meeting between Pruitt and the National Mining Association, the coal industry's main lobbying group in Washington. 

Earlier this week, the inspector general's office cast doubt on whether the probes would go on by telling reporters it was “assessing and evaluating our work relating to Administrator Pruitt in light of his resignation.” Two House Democrats from Virginia, Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer, swiftly responded by putting forward legislation that would have stalled EPA rulemaking until the inspector general’s reviews are complete.

The continuation of the probes, three of which could be completed as soon as next month, means Pruitt's name will remain in the news long after he has departed for his home state of Oklahoma and his successor, acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, tries to reset relations with the media.

Elsewhere in Congress, Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, plans to proceed with another investigation into Pruitt that has already made mountains of headlines with its revelations. So far only one of the probes, in which the Government Accountability Office found the purchase of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth for Pruitt broke federal spending laws, has concluded.

But the departure of Pruitt and several of his aides may slightly complicate the inspector general's work. The EPA's inspector general, Arthur A. Elkins Jr., cannot compel testimony from EPA employees after they resign, though his office can still subpoena documents related to their tenures.

A number of Pruitt's aides have left the agency either in the weeks before or shortly after his resignation. They include Pruitt’s former senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt and his onetime director for scheduling and advance Millan Hupp. The pair, both of whom worked with Pruitt in Oklahoma, were the recipients of the controversial pay raises.

While inspectors general can conduct criminal investigations, they cannot bring charges themselves. What agency watchdogs like Elkins can do is recommend that prosecutors file charges. One of the biggest outstanding questions concerning Pruitt is whether criminal prosecutors are investigating Pruitt.

The inspector general's office said it could not confirm the existence of any criminal probes. But Elbaum added: “We can say that any criminal investigations that may have existed at the time of Mr. Pruitt’s resignation will continue.” 

Kathleen Clark, a professor of legal ethics at Washington University in St. Louis, said that if the inspector general found evidence of a crime, it would most likely be for making false statements on financial disclosure forms or during investigators' interviews. The Justice Department's inspector general, for example, referred findings on former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe to prosecutors to consider criminal charges.

As for Pruitt's more salacious behavior, such as recruiting staff to buy him a used mattress from President Trump's hotel or to help get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise?

“That's unethical, but it's not a crime,” Clark said. “Violating a principle doesn't send you to jail.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Correction: The original version of this piece incorrectly said that the EPA watchdog cannot carry out criminal investigations. The inspector general can conduct criminal investigations but cannot bring charges.

POWER PLAYS

— FEMA admits failure in Puerto Rico... The Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged in a new report on Thursday that it had struggled with the response in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. The agency said it lacked the adequate personnel and supplies and “found itself struggling to do the work of the territorial government while responding to Hurricane Maria’s devastation,” The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández reports, adding the agency was left understaffed following the responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida. “Despite repeated Trump administration efforts to play down federal failures in responding to a humanitarian crisis on the island territory, the new report is a public acknowledgment of systemic failures during what was one of the most destructive hurricane seasons — and costliest disaster responses — in the nation’s history,” Hernández writes.

...and the island's power utility goes into “total meltdown": The majority of members of Puerto Rico’s bankrupt power utility board resigned, charging in a Thursday resignation letter that “political forces in Puerto Rico” were interfering with the board’s decision and wanting to “continue to control” the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the Wall Street Journal reports. The mass exit of five of the seven members also leaves the bankrupt public power utility leaderless as it continues to grapple with debt and the aftermath of destruction brought by Hurricane Maria. The incoming CEO was among the resigning members. Just a day earlier, the current CEO abruptly resigned from the board, per the Journal. Puerto Rico Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia called it a “total meltdown.”

— More proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act: Western lawmakers on Thursday announced nine bills “designed to streamline the administration of the Endangered Species Act, provide more local control and protect property rights,” according to a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting. The measures would include allowing officials to be more selective in adding species to the endangered list and make it easier to delist species.

THERMOMETER

— Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: This is how The Post’s Angela Fritz describes a super-fertile arc of land in Mississippi and Alabama that was once (145 million years ago, that is) the shoreline of Gulf of Mexico: “It is like a giant, state-size UFO came skidding to a halt in the Deep South and then picked up and left again. Or as if the Appalachian Mountains were actually a massive river, and this crescent was its delta.”

The super-fertile region is called “Black Belt" after the color of the soil. But it is also, as Booker T. Washington once described it, “the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers."

OIL CHECK

— ExxonMobil joins ALEC exodus: The U.S. oil giant has withdrawn from the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council over a disagreement on the lobbying group’s climate change policy. Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri said the major oil company won’t renew its membership, which expired last month.

It’s the latest company to leave the lobbying group. BP, Royal Dutch Shell Group, Ford and Expedia are among the members who have exited in recent years, according to Reuters. Exxon and ALEC had a “public spat” last year after “some members backed by climate skeptics such as the Heartland Institute moved to convince the federal government to drop its claim that climate change is a risk to human health," per Bloomberg News.

— Oil watch: A top Iranian official warned that the United States' sanctions against the country and the resulting oil price hike would have a detrimental impact on economic growth in Japan, India, China and Europe, adding to the economic woes such nations are facing as a result of U.S. tariffs, Reuters reports. “The comments underline the still-simmering tensions after OPEC’s meeting last month, when the group agreed to return to full compliance with earlier agreed oil output cuts, after months of underproduction by OPEC countries including Venezuela,” per the report.

And in Russia, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin countered the criticism from Trump that the potential natural gas pipeline project has forced Germany to be “captive to Russia.” “Natural gas pipelines lead not to a dependence of one country from another, but to mutual interdependence,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, per the Associated Press.

— The road ahead for Tesla:  

  • Tesla finally reported at the beginning of the month that it had hit its production goal of 5,000 Model 3 sedans a week, but a new report from Bloomberg Businessweek describes the “production hell” that it took to reach such a target. Employees describe drinking “copious amounts of Red Bull, sometimes provided free by Tesla” to fight through exhaustion, while others detailed having to walk through raw sewage that had spilled on the floor of the factory just to “keep the line going.” Chief executive Elon Musk and many employees counter such claims that workers are unsafe or unhappy, Bloomberg notes. 
     
  • The company has delivered 200,000 electric cars to buyers in the United States, which means it's reached the tax credit threshold established under the Republican tax plan that passed last year. The federal income tax credit that acts as a financial incentive for buyers of electric vehicles will now be cut 50 percent every six months until it phases out, Reuters reports. Such a shift will also disadvantage Tesla as other companies, such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi also bring their own electric competitors to market. General Motors will soon hit the 200,000-car threshold with its line of electric vehicles.
     
  • Musk on Wednesday pledged on Twitter to pay to help eliminate water contamination from any homes with lead contamination above safe levels. But one day later, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver’s spokeswoman said she had not yet heard from the mogul, according to the Detroit News, which noted one of Musk’s associates had reached out to get the mayor’s contact information. “There are several different ways he could help,” Flint spokeswoman Candice Mushatt said. "We've been saying, 'Don't take your eyes off Flint.' This is not over."

— Power grid summer readiness: The Energy Department's Energy Information Administration predicts gas-fired power plants will probably be the main source of power generation this summer, set to supply 37 percent of the electricity produced. That would approach the record levels from the summer of 2016, according to Utility Dive.

Why? Among the factors according to the EIA are low natural gas prices and environmental regulations.

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

 

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a legislative hearing to examine the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 2018 on July 17.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to “examine the Department of the Interior’s final list of critical minerals” on July 17.
  • The House Oversight Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and Environment holds a hearing on tribal energy resources on July 17.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on “The Role of Energy Storage in the Nation’s Electricity System” on July 18.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management holds a hearing on “Recovering from 2017 Disasters and Preparing for the 2018 Hurricane Season” on July 18.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— New York City’s waters are home to lots of sharks: Now its aquarium has them too, The Post's Juliet Eilperin reports.