Since he was sworn into office a little over a year ago, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt has moved between three different dwellings in the D.C. area. Of the three, a condo co-owned by the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist is where he’s spent the most time, news outlets learned Thursday.
That alone is enough to warrant serious inquiry. Yet the story grew more mysterious (if only tangentially so) on Friday, when ABC revealed that Pruitt’s security detail had to break down the door of the condo last March, believing he was unresponsive and needed to be rescued.
Pruitt was found in a “groggy” state, sources told ABC, but details about the incident are otherwise sparse. The EPA had to pay for the damage to the condo’s glass-paneled doors, though it’s unclear how much it cost.
Here’s everything else you should know about Pruitt’s condo:
Who owns the condo?
The condo is co-owned by Vicki Hart, a health care lobbyist. Her husband, J. Steven Hart, is the CEO of Williams & Jensen, a prominent energy lobbying firm.
Among other clients, Williams & Jensen represents a company called Cheniere Energy Inc., a liquefied natural gas company that Pruitt just happened to name-drop during a trip to Morocco last December. (The four-day, $40,000 trip itself was already controversial, as Pruitt clearly doesn’t work for the Department of Energy, yet for some reason was there to promote trade in natural gas.)
In a statement to The Associated Press, Steven Hart described Pruitt as a casual friend.
How much did Pruitt pay to stay there?
Around $50 for every night he slept in the condo. Per Bloomberg, which reviewed records of Pruitt’s payments, the EPA head paid $6,100 to stay there for a period of six months, which adds up to a rate of just over $1,000 a month. This probably goes without saying, but that’s well below the going rate for a comparable one-bedroom condo located about a block from the U.S. Capitol.
For the sake of comparison, Pruitt recently moved to a luxury apartment complex in the same area, notes The Washington Post, where rents for a one-bedroom unit run from $3,100 to $4,500 a month.
Steven Hart defended the arrangement in a statement via his lobbying firm. “Pruitt signed a market based, short-term lease for a condo owned partially by my wife,” he said. “Pruitt paid all rent owed as agreed to in the lease. My wife does not, and has not ever lobbied the EPA on any matters.”
Is that the extent of Pruitt’s relationship with the energy industry?
Not by a long shot. Pruitt has extensive ties to the oil and gas industry stretching back to his time running for office in Oklahoma. In 2014, for instance, more than three dozen executives for the electricity company OGE Energy Corp. contributed thousands of dollars to his campaign for state attorney general, even though he was running unopposed.
Just to bring this full circle, OGE Energy Corp. paid Williams & Jensen (Steven Hart’s lobbying firm) $400,000 in 2017 to lobby the EPA on greenhouse gas emissions from its power plants, reports the AP.
Why is this a problem?
In a word: ethics. Government officials should avoid putting themselves in any situation that might seem untoward. At best, having the head of the EPA enter into an improbably favorable rental arrangement with the spouse of a major energy lobbying firm’s CEO is highly suspect. Norm Eisen, former White House special counsel for ethics and government reform, tweeted that the case “may have just crossed into criminal territory.”
“I don’t conclude that this is a prohibited gift at all,” Justina Fugh, the EPA’s senior ethics counsel, said in a statement on Friday, pushing back on talk of criminality. “It was a routine business transaction and permissible even if from a personal friend.”
Pruitt is already under investigation by the EPA’s inspector general for his extensive ― and extravagantly expensive ― travel arrangements. That’s in addition to a separate investigation into his spending on a pricey security detail. At a bare minimum, a third investigation wouldn’t help Pruitt’s case in any of them.
Anything else I should know about Pruitt?
In addition to his love of first-class air travel and the unprecedented size of his security detail, he’s had no qualms about spending taxpayer dollars elsewhere. He spent $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth last year, $2,075 to refinish a desk, and $2,963 for a “captain’s desk.”