The White House has launched a formal inquiry into Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's living situation last year at a Capitol Hill townhouse co-owned by the wife of a top lobbyist.
As ABC News first reported last week, Pruitt rented a bedroom in a Capitol Hill condo in 2017 that was partially owned by Vicki Hart, the wife of lobbyist J. Steven Hart, who was registered to lobby for several environmental and energy concerns. A spokesman for Hart said he has not directly lobbied the EPA on behalf of clients since Trump took office.
The unusual rental agreement allowed Pruitt to pay $50 a night for use of the condo, only paying for when he stayed over. He wound up spending more than $6,000, according to figures reported by Bloomberg.
"I don't know how you survive this one, and if he has to go, it's because he never should have been there in the first place," Chris Christie, an ABC News contributor and former governor of New Jersey, told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos Sunday on "This Week."
White House officials were quiet about the arrangement over the weekend, telling ABC News they were gathering facts.
President Donald Trump's friend Christopher Ruddy, a contributor to ABC News and the founder and CEO of news and opinion site Newsmax, said they didn't think the president was ready to add Pruitt to the list of departing aides and cabinet officials.
"The president looks very holistically at their whole job performance and I think he'll apply that same formula to Scott Pruitt," Ruddy said, adding Trump is not "going to throw somebody overboard just because there's one issue."
But interest in the arrangement was growing louder Monday. Democrats on the House panel with oversight over the Environmental Protection Agency sent the agency a letter with a first round of questions about Pruitt’s controversial rental agreement.
“We are concerned that the unique rental arrangement, in which you only paid rent on the nights you were in town for use of one bedroom in the home, could be a potential conflict of interest,” Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., wrote in the letter.
Democrats want to know how Pruitt learned of the rental and whether he paid fair market value for the property, which they argue could have violated Pruitt's ethics pledge not to accept gifts from registered lobbyists. They also want to know whether Pruitt left any “personal materials” in the bedroom when he wasn’t in town if the room was rented out to other tenants and whether he had access to other parts of the condo during his stays on Capitol Hill.
Asked about the Democrats’ letter, a Republican committee aide told ABC News the panel has reached out to the EPA for further information about the arrangement.
Pruitt’s daughter, McKenna Pruitt, used a second room in the condo during her White House internship last year, despite the claim from the EPA that Pruitt paid $50-a-night for a single bedroom in the brick townhouse steps away from congressional office buildings.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said Friday that the arrangement was not a gift and that the lease was “consistent with federal ethics regulations.” The agency released two statements from EPA ethics officials defending Pruitt’s arrangement.
“Under the terms of the lease, if the space was utilized for one 30-day month, then the rental cost would be $1500, which is a reasonable market value,” the EPA said in an ethics review released by the agency from principal deputy general counsel Kevin Minoli, the EPA’s designated agency ethics official.
Other apartments in the Northeast Washington duplex have rented for as much as $5,000-a-month, a source familiar with a neighboring lease told ABC News last week.
Democrats have asked for a response from the EPA by Monday, April 16th, ahead of Pruitt’s planned testimony before the panel on April 26th. Pruitt’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Democratic inquiry.
The EPA inspector general is reviewing a request to investigate Pruitt’s arrangement from Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group, a spokesperson said.