Top ethics official pressures EPA watchdog to finish investigation on new Pruitt reports

President Trump praised Pruitt on Friday but said he's 'not happy.'

June 15, 2018, 4:37 PM

The top federal ethics official is pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency's watchdog to look into new questions raised about Administrator Scott Pruitt's conduct- and to finish those investigations as soon as possible.

Friday's letter is the second time that allegations against Pruitt have caught the attention of the highest-ranking official in the Office of Government Ethics, which is responsible for oversight of ethical questions in the executive branch.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee recently released testimony from one of Pruitt's aides, Millan Hupp, in which she said she was asked to help Pruitt find a new apartment and even try to purchase a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Chick-fil-A also confirmed that an EPA aide set up a meeting with Pruitt where he asked about setting up a franchise for his wife, which was first reported by the Washington Post.

The reports that Pruitt directed EPA aides to help him with personal favors or used his influence as EPA administrator to help his wife get a job have raised questions about whether he broke rules that prohibit government officials from using their office for personal gain or directing subordinates to do personal favors for them on government time.

Acting Director of the Office of Government Ethics David Apol wrote to the EPA's independent internal watchdog on Friday asking him to expand ongoing investigations to include whether Pruitt misused his position by asking subordinates at EPA to help him look for housing and furniture, asking his security detail to complete personal errands, and whether he used his official position to seek business opportunities for his wife. Apol cited reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal from the last week.

"We ask you to complete your report, as soon as possible, so that we can decide when to begin a formal corrective action proceeding and make a recommendation to the President," Apol wrote in the letter to EPA inspector general Arthur Elkins.

PHOTO: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a 2018 Hurricane Briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)  headquarters in Washington, DC, June 6, 2018.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a 2018 Hurricane Briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, DC, June 6, 2018.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

A "formal corrective proceeding" refers to a process laid out under federal law where the Office of Government Ethics can initiate its own procedure to recommend disciplinary action against an employee who violates ethics rules if the agency investigation is taking too long or if the broader office has reason to believe there are violations the agency did not address.

In this case, if Apol had reason to believe that Pruitt violated an ethics rule that, for some reason, was not addressed in the inspector general report, the broader ethics office could make its own recommendation to the president on what kind of disciplinary action should be taken.

President Donald Trump said Friday that he is "not happy" about some of the stories about Pruitt but still praised his work at the EPA.

"I'm looking at Scott and Scott's done a fantastic job at EPA but you know well, I'm not happy about certain things I'll be honest. I'm not happy about certain things but he's done a fantastic job running the EPA," Trump told reporters on Friday.

Former director of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Schaub tweeted that Pruitt's ethical issues will be a case study for future ethics officials after the letter was released. Schaub, who ran the ethics office under the Obama administration until he resigned last year, said earlier this week that Pruitt would have been fired under previous administrations.

Apol also wrote to the EPA's general counsel in April, which prompted the inspector general to expand ongoing investigations into Pruitt's actions since taking office.

The EPA inspector general is already looking into ethical questions around Pruitt's use of subordinates time, whether he retaliated against employees who raised concerns about his decisions, the cost of his travel and security detail and his living arrangement in a Capitol Hill condo connected to lobbyists.

The chairman of the Senate committee with oversight of EPA Sen. Mike Barrasso, R-Wyo., wrote to appropriations committee to make sure that the EPA inspector general's office is fully funded in the 2019 fiscal year. Elkins previously wrote that a proposed funding cut to his office "will virtually eliminate the [office of the inspector general's] ability to conduct discretionary audits."

A spokeswoman for the EPA inspector general said they had not yet received Apol's letter at the time it was publicly released on Friday.

More than 100 members of Congress, including some Republicans, have called on Trump to fire Pruitt or for the administrator to step aside amid the allegations of misconduct.

This past week some of Pruitt's staunchest defenders began to doubt whether he should stay in office, saying that the reports show unethical conduct that is a distraction for the administration.

"This is no way for any public official to treat taxpayers. It also makes it practically impossible for Pruitt to make the case for the Trump administration’s environmental policies — a case that we continue to believe deserves to be made," the editorial board of the conservative magazine the National Review wrote.

Conservative Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham also called for Pruitt to resign or be fired this week, saying that his "bad judgment" is hurting the president.

"I'm sorry but he's hurting the president, he's hurting the president because he has, I'm sorry, bad judgment after bad judgment after bad judgment. The money you want to spend whether its redecorating your office, if you want to drain the swamp you've gotta have people in it who forego personal benefits and don't send your aides around doing personal errands on the taxpayers dime because you make everyone else look bad," Ingraham said in an interview on her radio show with one of Pruitt's longtime supporters, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe.

Inhofe, a Republican on the Senate committee with oversight of EPA, said he had to agree "100 percent" that the news around Pruitt hurt the administration, even though he still considers himself Pruitt's friend and supporter.

"I'm afraid my good friend Scott Pruitt has done some things that really surprise me," Inhofe said in the interview.

Inhofe didn't go as far as Ingraham in calling on the president to fire the EPA administrator but said he wants to talk to Pruitt about his concerns.

"He's capable of doing the job but he needs to do the job and quit worrying about all these other things because every day something new comes out. So I've kind of taken the position that if that doesn't stop I'm going to be forced to be in a position where I'm going to say 'Scott you're not doing your job," he said.

Other members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, including Republicans, have called for Pruitt to answer questions about his conduct in front of the committee. The committee's chairman has said he is following the results of the pending investigations into Pruitt's conduct and plans to hold a hearing later this year but a date has not yet been set.