Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt lived most of his first year working for the Trump administration in a Capitol Hill townhouse co-owned by the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist, ABC News reported Thursday.
During that time, lobbyist J. Steven Hart’s company represented Cheniere Energy Inc., which is the only exporter of liquified natural gas from the continental U.S. Pruitt touted that very fuel on his controversial, pricey trip to Morocco last year.
Hart told The Associated Press that Pruitt was a casual friend from Oklahoma and the two had no contact for several months. Neither the EPA nor Hart would reveal how much rent Pruitt paid for the townhouse unit, ABC reported. Hart said, however, that he believed it was close to market rate. If the residence was free or below market rates, it could be considered a gift and a breach of ethics law.
But Bryson Morgan, the former investigative counsel at the Office of Congressional Ethics, told ABC that the most recent guidance from the Office of Government Ethics “emphasized that executive branch officials should decline even a permissible gift if it could cause the public to question their integrity or impartiality.”
Hart is chairman and CEO of Williams & Jenson, which calls itself a “lobbying powerhouse.” The firm earned $16 million for federal lobbying in 2017. Hart’s company has lobbied for a number of energy companies, including Cheniere, Norfolk Southern and Exxon Mobil, and against the federal Clean Air Act. Hart also serves as outside counsel for the National Rifle Association.
Pruitt’s condo was registered to a limited liability corporation with an address linked to Hart and his wife, Vicki Hart, who also works as a lobbyist with health care expertise, ABC reported. Hart confirmed to the network that his wife was a co-owner of the townhouse unit, but he would not identify who else was a co-owner.
In October, Pruitt signed a measure to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. He was living in Vicki Hart’s condo at the time; the signing was noted on the website of Williams and Jensen. Early this month Pruitt gutted Clean Power Plan restrictions on disposal of toxic coal ash that has caused major water contamination.
Pruitt has come under increasing criticism, most notably for regularly flying first or business class on his luxe work journeys that have cost taxpayers as much as $120,000 for a single trip for himself and aides.
The EPA has cited unspecified “security” concerns to support Pruitt’s pricey airfares. Last month, an agency spokesman told Politico that members of the public “yell” at him when he is traveling.
Pruitt and seven aides (at a cost of $40,000) spent four days in Morocco in December touting the benefits of liquified natural gas, according to an EPA press release. The trip was criticized by environmental groups and Democrats as having nothing to do with EPA’s mission.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement at the time that Pruitt “acts like he is a globe-trotting salesman for the fossil fuel industry who can make taxpayers foot the bill.” He told AP on Thursday that Pruitt, “who is supposed to protect our families from pollution, literally lived in a fossil fuel lobbyist’s house.”
Cheniere told ABC that it ended its relationship with Williams & Jenson in December and was unaware of connections between Pruitt and the Harts.
Neither the EPA nor Pruitt has commented.
The EPA’s inspector general launched an investigation last August into Pruitt’s expensive trips to his home state of Oklahoma and later expanded the probe to include other trips as well as his use of military and private jets for his trips. The probe was further expanded in January to include the Morocco trip.