As Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt prepared to testify to Congress this week, he was facing mounting criticism for a number of alleged ethical violations.
One of the scandals involves Pruitt's low-cost rental of an apartment in Washington, D.C., owned by an energy-industry lobbyist. The administrator also is under fire for reportedly taking questionable taxpayer-funded trips, and retaliating against some of his staffers while giving others unauthorized salary hikes.
Five investigations of Pruitt's conduct are underway. One federal agency has already determined that he broke the law when he spent $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth for his office. The EPA's budget was the official topic for this week's hearings by the House Energy and Commerce Committee's environment subcommittee and a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. However, Pruitt was sure to face scrutiny for the various controversies that have plagued his tenure in President Trump's Cabinet.
“Again and again, Administrator Pruitt has abused his position for personal and political gain, including a sweetheart apartment rental from a lobbyist and a litany of wasteful taxpayer-funded indulgences in first-class flights, personal security, office and official vehicle upgrades, and massive raises for his political friends,” Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, the top-ranking Democrat on the environmental subcommittee, told CNBC. “His subsequent denials and attempts to justify some of these ethics violations seem to have been complete fabrications.” Tonko and three other congressional Democrats urged Republican leaders to require that Pruitt testify under oath.
Even the EPA chief's former Republican supporters are turning against him. Conservative Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma has proposed an ethics investigation to examine Pruitt's actions not only in the nation's capital but also while he served as a state senator and attorney general in Oklahoma. Pruitt made a name for himself in the AG's office by repeatedly filing lawsuits against former President Obama's EPA.
“I’ve known him since he was in the state legislature and supported him,” Inhofe said. “These are accusations I did not know anything about. … I want to check and see how authentic the accusations against him are. If they are authentic it could have an effect. But sometimes things are not all that authentic.”
The statement stunned many political observers because Inhofe and Pruitt are kindred spirits on key issues. Both men adamantly deny that carbon emissions and other human activities are responsible for climate change. The senator provided his personal airplane to transport Pruitt to campaign stops and later nominated his friend for the top job at the EPA. Republican strategist John Feehery told the New York Times that “Pruitt is in big trouble” if Inhofe and other former backers abandon him.
So far, Trump has remained steadfast in his support. “Administrator Pruitt has done a good job of implementing the president’s policies, particularly on deregulation; making the United States less energy-dependent and becoming more energy independent,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “Those are good things. However, the other things certainly are something that we’re monitoring and looking at and I’ll keep you posted.”
Trump remains a Pruitt ally because of the real reason the official should lose his job: the unraveling of the EPA's mandate to safeguard the environment. He has helped the president implement campaign promises to roll back Obama-era regulations regarding clean water, polluted air, and other matters. Pruitt also agreed with Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.
Recently, Pruitt proposed gutting fuel-efficiency standards that Obama's EPA enacted. The rules were intended to reduce greenhouse emissions, which climate scientists blame for Earth's warming. “This is another step in the president's regulatory agenda, deregulatory agenda ... a billion dollars in savings with respect to over 22 significant regulatory actions that we've been involved in here at the agency," Pruitt boasted.
Previously, the administrator scrapped a Clean Air Act policy concerning the regulation of power plants that spew toxic chemicals. He also has signaled his intention to repeal Obama's Clean Power Plan.
“The administration has been aggressively deregulatory across the board, across agencies, but the EPA stands out even in that crowd,” Georgetown University law professor Lisa Heinzerling told CNN. She was the agency's associate administrator from July 2009 to December 2010. She added: “(Pruitt's) decisions appear to move all in one direction. He's not just limiting himself to one program. Across the agency, he appears to be acting in a uniformly deregulatory way.”
Trump is unlikely to fire Pruitt on policy grounds. After all, he has appointed many top-level officials who are actively working to undermine their agencies' missions. Critics also point to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, among others. However, Cabinet members apparently do not have to worry about any fallout resulting from their controversial views. Pruitt's eventual departure from the Cabinet will probably be due to his ethical lapses, rather than his anti-environment positions.