Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is using his office for personal gain, and Congress is letting it happen…
Heads up: starting now, my posts will end with a few questions. Comment with your answers or ask your own questions, and I will do my best to respond.
I apologize for the lateness of this post. I usually like to have them up by mid-morning. Today, however, I woke up to a brand-new article in the New York Times titled “For Pruitt Aides, the Boss’s Personal Life Was Part of the Job.” Before I get into the rest of my argument, I would like to outline the information about Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, released this morning. The article, written by Eric Lipton, Steve Eder, Lisa Friedman, and Hiroko Tabuchi, concluded that Pruitt has “no hesitation in leveraging his stature as a cabinet member to solicit favors himself.” An example of this is reaching out to the former speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates to request a recommendation to help his daughter gain admission to the Law School at the University of Virginia. In another case, Pruitt assigned three aides the task of securing his daughter a summer internship at the White House. Pruitt also went to a Nationals v. Pirates baseball game on the dime of Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah. The governor and Administrator Pruitt spent the game discussing a Superfund cleanup project (Lipton, et al). That information was reported this morning. The rest of what the American public knows about Pruitt will be discussed later in the article.
Before that, however, I would like to make two clarifications. First, although I will focus on one of the most blatant violators of federal ethics laws, I acknowledge there are more people in both the White House and on Capital Hill who fully deserve to be the focus of ethics investigations. I sadly have neither the time nor the resources to write about all of them. Second, although the questions I will raise in this post strictly relate to corruption, I also have problems with the actual policy that emerges from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that extend beyond the limits of this blog and deserve a blog of their own.
With all that said, Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, should be fired immediately. The fact that he remains in his office undermines the principles of the rule of law: political authorities cannot be held above the law. Mr. Pruitt has violated federal ethics laws both through illegal expenditures and the use of his office for personal gain. He must be held accountable.
Scott Pruitt’s slew of ethics violations dates back to his arrival in Washington when he rented a condo from a health care lobbyist whose husband has lobbied the EPA. Pruitt payed well below market rate for the six months he lived in the condo, a violation of regulations prohibiting gifts to officials from interested parties (Foran and Watkins). Pruitt also purchased a $43,000 sound-proof phone booth for his office without notifying Congress of the expense as is required if an agency plans to spend over $5000 on office equipment (Friedman, “E.P.A.”). The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the purchase broke two laws: the Antideficiency Act and the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act (Friedman, “E.P.A.”).
More recently, Pruitt has come under questioning for his use of EPA resources to pursue employment opportunities for his wife. In May, Pruitt assigned a “political aide” the responsibility of negotiating a “business opportunity” for his wife with Chick-fil-A (Friedman, “Scott”). Although the application was never completed, using a government aide for personal gain is illegal. Pruitt also ordered his scheduler, Millan Hupp, to book his personal travel, find apartments for him to live in, and run errands (Friedman, “Scott”). Though Chick-fil-A fell through, CNN’s Maegan Vazquez reports that Pruitt had earlier helped secure his wife a job at the Judicial Crisis Network, an organization with financial ties to the Federalist Society. The man who coordinated the job, Leonard Leo, is an executive vice president of the Federalist Society and a “longtime friend of Pruitt’s” who also arranged Pruitt’s trip to Italy in 2017. In May 2017, Pruitt arranged a job for his wife coordinating a conference for the nonprofit Concordia. Pruitt later spoke at the conference in his official capacity (Eilperin, et al). In all of these instances, Pruitt has used his position and/or his staff to secure financial opportunities for his wife, a blatant violation of ethics regulations.
Scott Pruitt has used and abused his position for far too long. The fact that he remains in it, though, is potentially more troubling than the abuses themselves. In response to public outcry in late April, Pruitt was brought to testify before Congress about the allegations against him (which, at that point, included travel expense questions, condo payments, pay raises, and the $43,000 phone booth). Pruitt responded by blaming aides for the ethical violations and rededicating himself to his agenda (Davenport and Friedman). The outcry died down, and Pruitt returned to business. Over the past months since the hearing, accusations have been mounting against the EPA director. However, the media has concentrated its biggest stories on other events, such as the North Korea summit, and the public has largely turned its attention towards other matters. This statement is not meant to place blame on the media or the public. In fairness, there have been bigger stories than Pruitt since his April trip to Capital Hill, and the media and public were not wrong to focus on them.
The blame for Pruitt continued stint in office falls squarely on the shoulders of Congress and the White House, specifically the majority party, the Republicans, who have chosen to not make ethics a priority in their new administration. Herein lies the problem. A government that cannot regulate itself without immense pressure from the public and the media is prone to corruption. There is no way Americans can be expected to keep track of the ethics of every single person paid by their tax dollars. There are government offices to do that, like the GAO. However, the GAO does not have enforcement powers; it relies on Congress to take action (Friedman, “E.P.A.”). If Congress does not take that action when there is no political advantage in doing so, good governance is near impossible. As the majority party in Congress, the Republicans need mobilize. Even though Pruitt is enacting what some perceive as positive change, that cannot be his pass for abuses of his office.
As the party platform for the GOP says, “When government uses taxpayer funding and resources to give special advantages to private companies, it distorts the free market and erodes public trust in our political system.” When Scott Pruitt uses taxpayer funding and resources to give special advantages to himself, he distorts the free market and erodes public trust in our political system. It’s as simple as that.
What do you think?
Should watchdog organizations in government be given enforcement power, or would that lead to corruption and politicization of the institutions?
Could Pruitt’s gross expenditures be a reflection of his insecurity as one of the least wealthy members of the wealthiest cabinet assembled in American history as Helaine Olen of the Washington Post suggests? Is it dangerous to have the narrow perspective that comes with an economically homogenous cabinet?
What steps can the government and the people take to ensure government officials are held accountable for their actions?
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