Scott Pruitt's Public Service Mostly Involves Serving Himself

What the EPA administrator's many scandals have in common.
Scott Olson via Getty Images

To become a citizen in classical Athens required swearing an oath. The young sons of citizens recited it as part of their military training. As members of the ruling class, the oath evoked a lifelong responsibility to temper power with integrity. One translation renders it as, “We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; We will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty; We will revere and obey the city’s laws.”

I encountered this oath on a daily basis when I was a student at the oldest school of public administration in the United States, some 20 years ago. Embossed on the walls of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, it serves as an enduring symbol of civic virtue at a time when access to citizenship is thankfully broader than in ancient Athens.

Today, the ideals of the oath also offer a sharp rebuke to the conduct of the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, whose tenure has left a deepening stain on the reputation of government as a place to selflessly serve one’s fellow citizens.

Whether or not you agree with Pruitt’s policy positions, he has demanded extravagances better befitting a dictator fearful of a hostile citizenry than a U.S. Cabinet member. Most Americans would struggle to pick him out of a lineup, but Pruitt tripled the size of his security detail to 20 bodyguards.

“Pruitt’s lavish public spending is only matched by a disregard for ethical standards when it comes to his personal living costs.”

His spending on first-class travel is likewise justified as a security concern. He also spent $43,000 and violated federal law to install a soundproof booth to thwart eavesdropping staff. (Meanwhile, the rest of us make do with shutting our office door).

Pruitt’s lavish public spending is only matched by a disregard for ethical standards when it comes to his personal living costs. Fifty dollars a night will buy you a shared hostel space in pricey Washington, but Pruitt saw it as fair rent for his condo space. His landlord happened to be the wife of a lobbyist who had previously held fundraisers for Pruitt, and whose firm’s clients had business in front of the EPA. It may all be innocent, but the appearance of a conflict of interest weakens public trust.

EPA officials who questioned Pruitt’s self-aggrandizement were dismissed from the circle of power. When a Trump political appointee objected to spending $100,000 a month for Pruitt to join a private jet charter club, he was put on leave without pay. The head of Pruitt’s security was removed after he refused to violate EPA policy by using sirens to speed Pruitt’s path to a French restaurant in Washington. Others who questioned the first-class travel were reassigned.

At the same time, Pruitt has skirted policies to reward loyalists. After the White House rejected a pay raise for two of Pruitt’s younger appointees, he used an obscure law designed to recruit highly qualified experts to government to make it happen. Staff members were told to spend more than federal guidelines allowed on office refurbishment. His new head of security, Pasquale Perrotta, has been more responsive to his boss than his predecessor, indulging in Pruitt’s desire for bulletproof desks and other paraphernalia better suited to a spy movie. Perhaps coincidentally, Pruitt has hired Perrotta’s private security firm for additional work, including sweeping his offices for bugs.

“Pruitt’s vision of public service seems to be a purely transactional one: How can I use my position of public trust to benefit myself and my supporters?”

As a professor of public management, I am happy to report that students entering public service continue to do so in the spirit of the Athenian oath. Indeed, research shows that those with a stronger public service motivation are more driven and productive when given a chance to help others. Public servants also respond to leaders who can credibly articulate how the mission of their organization makes a difference.

How do I explain Secretary Pruitt’s behavior to these students?

Pruitt’s vision of public service seems to be a purely transactional one: How can I use my position of public trust to benefit myself and my supporters? As Oklahoma’s attorney general, he coordinated closely with the oil and gas industry, to the point that he wrote letters authored by industry lobbyists attacking the agency he now runs.

In Pruitt’s defense, he is merely following a model of ethical compromise that emanates from the Oval Office.

President Donald Trump ― who has refused to set up a blind trust to separate his public office from his sprawling business interests and who tasks unqualified family members with serious governmental responsibilities ― has supported Pruitt, praising him as a “fantastic person” “doing a great job.” Pruitt’s imperious attitude toward his employees also mirrors a president who fires cabinet members by tweet.

If Pruitt is to go, it will not be for his ethical lapses, but the sin of bad optics. Pruitt now exemplifies the swamp that Trump promised to drain. But Pruitt also exemplifies a deeper problem with American governance ― the erosion of a normative expectation of government as a noble calling tied to a sense of the public good.

The Athenian Oath concludes: “We will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” Perhaps they should post it at EPA headquarters.

Donald Moynihan is Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studies government performance and trains graduate students interested in public service. Follow him on Twitter at @donmoyn.