Top government ethics official writes EPA on Pruitt questions

PHOTO: Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt listens as President Donald Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House, April 9, 2018. PlayKevin Lamarque/Reuters
WATCH EPA's Scott Pruitt speaks out about criticism of living arrangement

The federal government's top ethics official wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency's top ethics official this week asking the office to look into news reports from the last two weeks that have raised questions about whether administrator Scott Pruitt violated any ethical guidelines since he took the helm at the EPA.

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In the letter, Acting Director of the Office of Government Ethics David Apol calls on the EPA's ethics office to review and analyze reports about Pruitt's living arrangement in a Capitol Hill townhouse connected to lobbyists, his travel and security expenses, and reports that he retaliated against staff that raised objections to some of his decisions.

The letter, dated Friday, was first reported by The New York Times.

Pruitt paid $50 a night to stay in a bedroom of a Capitol Hill townhouse co-owned by Vicki Hart, the wife of a lobbyist named J. Stephen Hart, whose firm represents energy companies with interests that fall under EPA jurisdiction. That arrangement has raised additional questions about Pruitt's time at EPA and multiple lawmakers have called for further investigation into the deal.

Apol wrote specifically to Kevin Minoli, the EPA's principal general counsel and designated ethics official, about the many reports about Pruitt and is prepared to take any corrective action under its authority if it finds that Pruitt violated government ethics rules.

PHOTO: David Apol in an undated photo. United States Office of Government Ethics
David Apol in an undated photo.

"The American public needs to have confidence that ethics violations, as well as the appearance of ethics violations, are investigated and properly addressed," he wrote.

The Office of Government Ethics is responsible for oversight of executive branch officials and ethics offices within government agencies but doesn't have the authority to conduct its own investigations into allegations of misconduct.

Apol also says that statements from agency ethics officials that Pruitt's living situation did not violate gift rules could now be in question given new information about the arrangement.

Agency ethics officials issued statements after the arrangement was reported that it did not violate gift rules because the arrangement was market value, but Apol points out in the letter that those statements were issued only after the arrangement became public and that additional information "calls into question" where those findings are still valid.

"Additional information has now come to light that calls into question whether the earlier determination that the Administrator paid market value for the use he made of the apartment would still be valid," he wrote.

The official who issued the original statement, Justina Fugh, has said that she did not have all the information when she made that initial statement. Fox example, she said she was not told that Pruitt's daughter, McKenna, lived in a second bedroom in the condo while she was in Washington for a White House internship. Minoli issued an additional memo last week explaining his rationale for determining that the living arrangement did not violate the gift rule and clarifying that his ethics statements only looked at whether the arrangement was an improper gift, not whether it created a conflict of interest or the appearance of an inappropriate relationship.

Pruitt has cited the statements from EPA ethics officials in response to questions about the arrangement.

"Absolutely its something that it was done the right way, there's a lease in place, it was fair market value and it's been shown as such," he said in an interview with Fox News last week.

The agency's ethics officials searched for rates on Airbnb and Zillow and found that the rate of $50 a night was market value. Pruitt only paid for nights that he slept at the condo and has called it an "Airbnb" style arrangement, but external ethics experts have said it could raise further questions if the owners held the room open for him even when he didn't pay.

Apol also mentions a New York Times story that said that Pruitt reassigned employees that raised concerns about his decisionmaking and spending, including the former head of his security detail who reportedly would not use the vehicles' lights and sirens to avoid DC traffic. Apol calls the report "extremely concerning."

The EPA has not responded to questions about that story from ABC News but a spokesman told the Times they dispute the veracity of the report and called the employees who were reassigned or placed on leave "disgruntled."

"If true, it is hard to imagine any action that could more effectively undermine an agency's integrity," he wrote in the letter.

Though Apol notes that the Office of Government Ethics doesn't have the authority to look into whether an officials' travel is a good use of taxpayer funds, he writes there are concerns that Pruitt was using his official position to travel back to Oklahoma for personal reasons or to support future political ambitions.

Pruitt and EPA have defended the cost of his travel and security, saying the agency needed to increase his security protection in response to a drastic increase in threats against him compared to previous administrators. Pruitt said that his staff decided he should fly first class so he could be evacuated quickly if needed in an interview with Fox News last week but he recently told CBS News that he asked his staff to change security protocol so he could fly in coach.

The New York Times published the first report about Pruitt's travel to Oklahoma in his first few months in office that prompted the questions and internal investigation. The Times reports that an EPA spokeswoman said all the trips were related to agency business.

The EPA's internal watchdog began looking into Pruitt's frequent travel back to Oklahoma in August of last year. That review has since expanded to look at the cost of all his travel in 2017 when he frequently traveled first class on domestic and international trips.

The EPA's ethics office falls under the Office of General Counsel, which reports to the administrator's office. The EPA's independent internal watchdog, the inspector general, has also received multiple requests to look into Pruitt's housing arrangement.

The inspector general's office is reviewing the requests but had not yet said if it will open any new investigations. The office is already looking into the cost of Pruitt's travel and security, as well as the use of a provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act to appoint senior employees.

The White House also opened a form inquiry into Pruitt's living arrangement. Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on a committee with oversight of the EPA, said in a statement Monday that he will wait for the result of that formal review to comment on the recent questions about Pruitt.