Scott Pruitt is facing mounting pressure to resign from the Environmental Protection Agency amid intensifying scrutiny of his alleged ethical lapses.
On Tuesday, two Republican House members joined Democrats and environmental groups in calling for Pruitt to step down. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “the president thinks that he’s done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front,” but added that “we take this seriously and we’re looking into it.” On Thursday, Hogan Gidley, a deputy White House press secretary, said on Fox News that he “can’t speak to the future of Scott Pruitt.”
Pressure escalated Thursday afternoon as two new reports alleged that Pruitt tried to abuse his vehicle’s emergency sirens to cut through traffic, and that five EPA officials who challenged Pruitt’s “unusually large spending” were either reassigned, demoted or forced out.
If Pruitt exits, he will have served the shortest term of any EPA administrator in history, and will be the first forced out since Anne Gorsuch Burford, President Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, resigned in disgrace in 1983. Burford was EPA’s first female administrator (not to mention the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch), and stepped down after being cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over Superfund records.
Pruitt’s aggressive attempts to roll back environmental regulations, undermine critical work on climate change and disqualify huge swathes of scientific research in favor of industry-backed science have defined his 14 months at the agency. Yet his future in the Trump administration now hinges on an ongoing White House review of his spending, his use of loopholes to give political appointees unapproved raises, and links to lobbyists who gave him a great deal on a Capitol Hill rental.
To give a sense of just how many questions are now swirling about Pruitt, here’s a short list of issues that raise concerns over his leadership as the nation’s top environmental regulator:
1. His Washington housing arrangement.
At the center of Pruitt’s ballooning ethics crisis is his $50-a-night sweetheart deal to rent a room in a luxury Capitol Hill townhouse linked to a fossil fuel industry lobbying firm, Williams & Jensen. The EPA’s ethics lawyers scrambled to approve the arrangement, but struggled to defend the administrator after news broke that his adult daughter also stayed at the residence. But those EPA lawyers walked back the approval in a Wednesday memo, arguing that they did not have all the necessary information to consider the arrangement. During the time Pruitt stayed at the condominium, Williams & Jensen’s clients won approval from the EPA for a pipeline-extension project.
2. A shady real estate deal in Oklahoma.
In 2011, Pruitt and his wife, Margaret, bought a property in Tulsa, Oklahoma, days before a court ruled that it had been fraudulently transferred by a Las Vegas developer who was on the hook for a $3.6 million loan default, according to a report the watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy published Thursday in Salon. Pruitt, then Oklahoma attorney general, flipped the property four months later, selling it to a shell company set up by a major campaign donor, Tulsa business magnate and Oklahoma Republican Party finance chair Kevin Hern.
3. Giving unapproved raises.
Pruitt used a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act to give two of his longtime aides raises of $56,765 and $28,130 after the White House rejected his request for the salary increases. The law includes a provision that allows the administrator to hire up to 30 people without White House or congressional approval for work related to the law. In a contentious Fox News interview on Wednesday, Pruitt insisted the action was taken without his knowledge, and said he didn’t know who made the decision. But the law dictates that the administrator must approve the hires, calling his exasperated statements on Trump’s favorite cable channel into question.
4. His first-class travel ― and his explanation.
Federal regulations dictate that government employees be “prudent” when “making official travel arrangements,” and book “the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs.” Yet Pruitt routinely spent between $1,400 and $4,000 on flights to Boston, New York and Corpus Christi, Texas, according to The Washington Post. He regularly stayed in luxury hotels. His international travel expenses soared into the six figures. In June, a trip to an environmental summit in Italy cost more than $120,000, while a December trip to Morocco to promote liquefied natural gas ― a bizarre responsibility for the nation’s environmental regulator to take on ― reportedly cost nearly $40,000 with staff. In February, Pruitt defended his first-class airfare, insisting angry members of the public heckled him in economy class.
5. His frequent trips back home to Oklahoma.
The EPA shelled out between $2,000 and $2,600 for Pruitt’s first-class flights to his home state of Oklahoma, where he spent 43 out of 92 days last spring. The trips cost a total of more than $12,000 in airfare, according to records released last year. His frequent travel triggered a probe from the EPA inspector general, and prompted speculation that the former Oklahoma attorney general was using the EPA’s budget to lay the groundwork for an eventual campaign for governor or Senate in the Sooner State.
6. About that Morocco trip...
The EPA inspector general recently expanded its inquiry into Pruitt’s travel costs to include expenses related to the December trip to Morocco to promote liquefied natural gas. The trip also attracted new scrutiny in light of Pruitt’s Washington housing arrangement. The EPA denied that Pruitt met with officials from Cheniere Energy Inc., a gas firm that paid Williams & Jensen $80,000 for lobbying, or the lobbying firm itself. But Democrats called the trip outrageous, and one insisted, “This is not an area within his portfolio. He’s not supposed to be globetrotting to promote the sale of LNG.”
7. A private jet?
The EPA considered spending roughly $100,000 a month to lease Pruitt a private jet, according to The Washington Post. Aides ultimately scuttled the idea before Tom Price resigned as secretary of health and human services in September after revelations that he routinely took costly chartered flights.
8. Round-the-clock security.
Pruitt isn’t just afraid of airplane hecklers. He’s particularly paranoid about threats from protesters. The EPA chief’s expansive security detail comes at a cost of close to $3 million, including pay and travel expenses, an unnamed EPA official told The Associated Press. Pruitt has roughly 20 full-time, round-the-clock security guards ― three times as many as his predecessor. Some of the guards even fly with Pruitt in first class, the EPA confirmed last month. No Cabinet member in U.S. history has ever been assassinated.
9. Spending $120,000 to hire an opposition researcher for the media.
Pruitt cultivated a contentious relationship with reporters early on, granting interviews primarily to friendly outlets such as Fox News, Breitbart News and The Daily Caller, while declining to provide even basic information about his schedule or actions to mainstream news organizations. Last year, he signed off on a $120,000 no-bid contract with a firm whose president boasts being “a master of opposition research” and whose senior vice president, as Earther noted, took part in a campaign to shape negative opinions about Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) through “scathing op-eds and online hot takes.” The EPA canceled the contract after Mother Jones exposed the deal.
10. Spending roughly $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth.
Pruitt’s secretiveness comes at a high price. Last fall, he installed a soundproof phone booth in his office. Pruitt defended the expense, initially estimated at $25,000, in a congressional hearing, where he said, “It’s necessary for me to be able to do my job.” Last month, The Washington Post reported that the cost was nearly double the original price, at nearly $43,000.
11. He tried to use emergency sirens to cut through D.C. traffic.
Pruitt asked his security team to use his vehicle’s emergency lights and sirens to speed through traffic in Washington to get to an official appointment, CBS News reported on Thursday. The lead security agent told him not to, advising the Pruitt that the sirens were only to be used in emergencies. The agent was reassigned less than two weeks later.
12. Punishing EPA staffers who challenged his spending.
Pruitt reassigned, demoted or forced out five agency officials who challenged his “unusually large spending on office furniture and first-class travel,” The New York Times reported on Thursday afternoon.
13. Allowing an aide to moonlight as a media consultant.
The EPA ethics office in August gave John Konkus, a top Pruitt aide, approval to work as a media consultant outside the agency. But, after E&E News broke the story, the EPA refused to disclose the identities of Konkus’ clients.
14. His naked political ambitions.
Pruitt’s interest in becoming Oklahoma’s governor, or replacing Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) when his fifth term ends in 2020, has been widely discussed for months. But, more recently, the EPA administrator appeared to have even loftier ambitions. In January, Politico reported that he was eyeing the job of U.S. attorney general as Jeff Sessions’ relationship with the president frayed. A profile in The New York Times last month quoted sources saying Pruitt had been plotting to make a bid for president as early as 2024.
15. His past ties to natural gas companies.
Pruitt’s decision to live under the roof of a gas industry lobbyist is less surprising when you consider that Pruitt allowed Devon Energy Corp., an Oklahoma City-based gas giant, to write a complaint to the EPA under his letterhead as the state attorney general in 2011. He barely changed a word before signing and sending the complaint as his own, The New York Times reported in 2014. Emails released days after he was confirmed as EPA administrator showed a long history of chummy conversations between Pruitt’s office and gas companies in his state.
16. Meeting more with fossil fuel companies than with health advocates.
Pruitt spent more time meeting with oil, gas and coal industry officials than with environmental and public health advocates during his first few weeks in office, according to calendars reviewed by HuffPost. That trend continued. During his first 10 months in office, Pruitt gave more than 30 speeches to industry groups and companies regulated by the EPA, but did not speak once before an environmental or public health group during the same period, according to a report by ThinkProgress.
17. Withholding his appointment calendars.
The EPA has refused to release Pruitt’s calendars for months, breaking with a precedent set by the previous administration. During Pruitt’s first year in office, plaintiffs, including news outlets and environmental groups, filed 55 public records lawsuits against the EPA, making it the busiest year for litigation since 1992, according to Politico.
18. Refusing to recuse himself.
Of the 14 times Pruitt sued the EPA as Oklahoma attorney general, four lawsuits aimed to block the Clean Power Plan, the signature Obama administration regulation to cut emissions from the utility sector. Despite this, Pruitt refused to recuse himself from the EPA’s effort to repeal the rule once he took office.
19. His “red team-blue team” debate on climate science.
Pruitt proposed hosting a televised debate on climate science, pitting a “red team” against a “blue team,” and running a military-style exercise to offer the American people an “objective” perspective on global warming. The plan was widely panned by scientists and researchers, who said it gave undue weight to industry-backed climate deniers whose views are not backed up by overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is human-caused. White House chief of staff John Kelly killed the idea, which he considered ill-conceived and politically risky, according to The New York Times.
20. His embrace of the right-wing Heartland Institute.
Since Pruitt took office, the EPA has worked closely with the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank that transformed itself from a defender of Big Tobacco under the auspice of “smokers’ rights” to a leading proponent of climate change denial. The group receives funding from conservative donors, including Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the billionaires who bankrolled Trump’s presidential campaign. Last year, the group submitted a list of names to the EPA for Pruitt’s red team-blue team debate. It included a convicted child sex offender. Heartland has been a lightning rod for controversy. In January, HuffPost reported that the group protected a former executive charged with stalking and harassing a female colleague half his age.
21. Booting scientists off EPA advisory boards without telling them.
Pruitt announced plans late last year to bar scientists who receive EPA research funding from serving on the agency’s advisory boards, a move widely seen as an attempt to give industry-paid researchers more control over the regulatory process. In doing so, Pruitt named new scientists to head the Science Advisory Board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the Board of Scientific Counselors. But the previous leaders of those boards told HuffPost the EPA never alerted them before they were booted.
22. Spending a lot of election money on luxury travel before joining the EPA.
From 2002 to 2016, Pruitt, then Oklahoma attorney general, received more than $300,000 in donations from the oil, gas and coal industries. Even more went to a political action committee and a super PAC set up to help him get re-elected and fund like-minded politicians. Yet only a fraction of the money went to campaigns, while the fundraising groups paid for Pruitt to take trips to places such as Hawaii and New Orleans, where he stayed in luxury hotels, according to filings HuffPost reviewed in January.
23. Naming a coal lobbyist as his No. 2 ― the man who could replace him.
If Pruitt is fired or resigns, his likely successor is a coal lobbyist he picked as his No. 2. Andrew Wheeler, who previously lobbied for the coal giant Murray Energy. Wheeler is a climate change denier and is considered an actor with the skills to execute the same deregulatory agenda Pruitt has pursued. Wheeler spent four years working at the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, earning him a reputation as someone who, unlike Pruitt, knows the agency he would be running.
This story has been updated with information on Pruitt’s first-class travel.