There has been no shortage of questionable travel arrangements made by President Trump’s Cabinet-level officials. But Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s $50-per-night rental agreement is pretty swampy.
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency paid just $50 a night to stay in a Capitol Hill condominium linked to a prominent Washington lobbyist whose firm represents a roster of fossil fuel companies.
So much about this raises red flags.
First off, the rental was per night, rather than monthly. This allowed Pruitt to have a home on Capitol Hill — just blocks from the Capitol, no less — for $6,100 over about six months, according to Bloomberg. Regardless of the size of Pruitt’s room, paying about $1,000 per month to live on Capitol Hill is a deal that is basically impossible to beat — if not unheard-of. And for proof, look no further than Pruitt’s new apartment. Since ending this arrangement, he is living in a building where rents for one bedroom range between $3,100 and $4,500 per month, The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report.
Remarkably, Bloomberg reported that an anonymous source compared Pruitt’s $50-per-night rent “to an Airbnb-style arrangement.” But as you’ll see below, he signed what the owner’s spouse described as a “lease.” And even if it were technically being treated as a vacation rental, the $50-per-night rate would be a killer deal on Capitol Hill, as Dennis and Eilperin note:
According to the website Inside Airbnb, which compiles data from rentals on the lodging site, the average price of a private room in a D.C. home is $113 per night. In the Capitol Hill neighborhood where Pruitt was staying, the average is $142 per night.
It also leads to questions of whether, like a vacation rental, the room was available to other people. If Pruitt effectively had a monopoly on the room and was able to keep his things there, that's not really Airbnb; that's being a tenant.
Perhaps the swampiest aspect of this, though, is who owns the condo: the wife of a lobbyist who has clients with distinct interests in EPA business. J. Steven Hart is the chairman and CEO of Williams and Jensen, which represents Exxon Mobil and the liquefied natural gas company Cheniere Energy, among others. His wife, Vicki Hart, also is a lobbyist, though she works on health-care issues.
Steven Hart explained to AP on Friday that Pruitt is something of a friend from back in Oklahoma and that Pruitt “signed a market-based, short-term lease for a condo owned partially by my wife.” Hart emphasized that Vicki Hart “does not, and has not ever, lobbied the EPA on any matters.”
There is all kind of intermingling of interests in Washington, and it’s not fair to assume someone can’t do a job fairly and impartially because of who their husband works for. But in this situation, Pruitt received a deal with very favorable terms that he happened to get from someone whose immediate family has a huge interest in regulation of precisely the industries Pruitt oversees. If Pruitt received these rental terms from some random person with no connection to energy companies or if he rented at a more normal monthly rate from someone like the Harts, it wouldn’t seem so bad. The combination of the two -- and the odd, Airbnb-style rental agreement -- carries more than a whiff of a sweetheart deal.
Pruitt is no stranger to these types of controversies. Last month, The Post detailed dozens of first-class flights he had taken and a tendency to stay at luxury hotels. Pruitt claimed he flew first class to avoid interactions with angry citizens, though he later said he would fly coach. Dennis and Eilperin also reported last week that Pruitt had spent $68,000 in travel costs over a seven-month period, much of which aides attributed to his need for a security detail.
Two other Cabinet-level officials have been fired after questions were raised about their travel, including Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin just this week. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have also made questionable trips and requests.
But it’s one thing to spend taxpayer money unwisely; it’s another to create the impression of a potentially serious conflict of interest that could impact regulations that account for billions of dollars. How Pruitt ever thought this was a good idea is really difficult to understand, and it seems unlikely we’ve heard the last of this.