The Office of Government Ethics has put EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on notice over continued allegations of ethical lapses, including a questionable rental agreement, exorbitant travel at taxpayer expense and questions over his demotions or reassignments of staff who did not agree with him.
The letter from OGE Acting Director and General Counsel David J. Apol, dated April 6 and made public Monday, comes as Pruitt struggles to defend himself against the ethical snags and as several lawmakers, including a few Republicans, have publicly rebuked him or called for his exit.
As Pruitt was still defending his below-market rate condo rental from a lobbyist couple and a move to sidestep the White House to give his favored aides salary raises, new reports surfaced that he dismissed or reassigned EPA employees who had questioned his spending or defied his orders, among them a security detail who informed him it was illegal to use his official vehicle sirens to get past traffic, except in emergencies.
In his letter, Apol called the reports of reassignments and demotions “extremely” concerning.
“If true, it is hard to imagine any action that could more effectively undermine an agency’s integrity than punishing or marginalizing employees who strive to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations that safeguard that integrity,” Apol wrote.
Still, Pruitt appears to have the backing of President Donald Trump, who on Friday tweeted that the environmental regulator is “doing a great job” but is “totally under siege.”
On Saturday, Trump reiterated his support, defending Pruitt’s spending and his $50 per night rental arrangement with the lobbyist couple.
“While Security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA,” Trump said in a tweet. “Record clean Air & Water while saving USA Billions of Dollars . . . Scott is doing a great job!”
And Pruitt — among the most aggressive of Trump’s appointees in cutting federal regulations — enjoys wide support among GOP lawmakers, several of whom are either standing by him or at least avoiding publicly scolding his actions.
“Certain questions have been raised about internal operations of the agency and the administrator’s actions,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming said in a Monday news release. “The White House has indicated it has taken on a formal review of these questions. I will wait for the outcome of that process.”
But his support among GOP lawmakers is not rock-solid.
On Sunday, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., joined a handful of Republicans who have chastised Pruitt, calling his actions “stupid” and “unforced” errors.
“Stop leading with your chin,... They’re a lot of problems we can’t solve, but you can behave,” Kennedy said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” show on Sunday. “I don’t mean to denigrate Mr. Pruitt, but doggone it he represents the president of the United States and it is hurting his boss.”
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the only Republican to vote against Pruitt’s confirmation, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the “daily drip” of ethical allegations against Pruitt distracts from the agency’s mission and called for Congress to investigate.
“But on policy grounds alone, I think Scott Pruitt is the wrong person to head the EPA,” she said.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., co-chairman of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, has urged Trump to fire Pruitt. He said last week that the administrator’s conduct is “grossly disrespectful” to taxpayers and that the corruption scandals are an “embarrassment” to the administration.
Meanwhile, Democrats continue to push for investigations. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., on Monday requested a review by the Government Accountability Office and determination about whether Pruitt’s actions violated different federal laws.
Pruitt is already under investigation by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General for his spending and use of private jets and luxury hotels and other ethical allegations.
“If a violation is found, the OGE expects that appropriate action will be taken in response,” Apol said in his letter to the EPA. “Similarly, if a violation or misconduct is found, your agency should ensure that processes are in place to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the OGE’s letter.