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 staff, his 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.
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