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Daily News Blog

06
Apr

Is EPA Administrator Pruitt Colluding with the Regulated Industry?

(Beyond Pesticides, April 6, 2018) Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is getting plenty of attention for what the public and some members of Congress see as his spendthrift and potentially corrupt behaviors since taking office in early 2017. Pundits and prognosticators who focus on the Washington, DC scene are speculating that this attention is not welcome by the White House, and wonder if Mr. Pruitt will soon be on the “wrong end of a Trump tweet.” 

This may be refreshing news to environmental advocates, scientists, and public health experts, who have objected to the “changes” he’s brought to the agency, which frequently favor industry interests over science-based protection of the environment and public health. EPA’s moves to reduce enforcement, roll back protective regulations, and install industry-friendly personnel have been covered extensively by Beyond Pesticides; examples include: “Where Has All the EPA Enforcement Gone,” “The Threat to Scientific Integrity at EPA,” and regular posts in its Daily News Blog.

Administrator Pruitt calls his approach to EPA’s function “Back to Basics,” which he says includes a refocus on EPA’s “intended mission, a return of power to the states, and creation of an environment where jobs can grow.” The agency website sets out the “three Es” of the Back-to-Basics agenda: Environment: protecting the environment; Economy: sensible regulations that allow economic growth; and Engagement: engaging with state and local partners. The new agenda was announced in April 2017 at a coal mine in Sycamore, Pennsylvania — a telling gesture that betrays Pruitt’s actual allegiances: to the extractive, chemical, industrial, and transportation interests that are the chief sources of environmental degradation in the U.S.

Of course, neither the intent of its creators nor the mission of EPA identifies job creation and economic growth as aspects of the agency’s purview or goals. The agency’s mission reads: The United States Environmental Protection Agency is an agency of the federal government of the United States which was created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress.” The back-to-basics language that the Pruitt EPA has invented is a sleight of speech intended to skew public perception of what the EPA does, and thereby, create “cover” for its deconstruction of environmental protections.

One might presume that Mr. Pruitt, in promoting this agenda for the EPA, would also be promoting a culture of responsible spending by the agency. On the contrary, his spending has been far beyond basic, and has included routine travel by first-class airline flights or military jets and staying at high-end hotels. In June 2017, he and his aides racked up $90,000 in travel costs — which amount doesn’t include the cost of his 24/7 security detail. Mother Jones highlighted an example: “On Monday, June 5, accompanied by his personal security detail, Pruitt . . . raced to New York on a military jet, at a cost of $36,068.50, to catch a plane to Rome.”

Mr. Pruitt has also spent lavishly on contending with what he and his officials call “security threats.” To be sure, he has received four-to-five times as many threats as his predecessor, though the credibility of such threats is not clear — nor is it clear how flying first class keeps him any safer than flying coach. Politico notes that some of the threats have comprised only “threatening tweets and a menacing postcard.”

EPA initially claimed that Mr. Pruitt has a “blanket waiver” to upgrade from coach airline travel because of those “security threats.” That claim was investigated and discovered to be false; the General Services Administration bans “blanket waivers,” and mandates that government employees must request a waiver for each trip. After Politico publicly pointed this out, EPA walked back its claim.

Administrator Pruitt’s extreme concern about security has moved some observers to suggest a level of paranoia that is costing taxpayers a bundle. The spending on accommodations to perceived security threats includes $43,000 on installation of a soundproof phone booth in his office, and $9,000 to sweep his office for listening devices, and install biometric locks and “access control card readers.” His own employees are required to have an escort to come into his office, and are sometimes prohibited from taking notes at meetings. Pruitt’s team also guards his schedule carefully; some believe this is an effort to be unpredictable and so, less easily targeted. But it also makes it difficult for the Fourth Estate to cover the Administrator’s activities. Kate Yoder, writing for Grist, says, “The secretive schedule is a departure from the norm and shields him from some level of scrutiny. It’s unclear if Pruitt is more concerned about outside threats or keeping journalists and the public in the dark about what he’s up to.”

Mr. Pruitt has also insisted on an unprecedented, round-the-clock security detail to accompany him when he travels — including on vacation trips to the Rose Bowl and Disneyland, and on frequent trips back home to Oklahoma. Costs for this security detail — which always flies first class — have not been released, but CNN has indicated that they come in at approximately $2 million per year, not including travel, training, and equipment.

In early April, Rep. Elijah Cummings and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi called for hearings on whether the Trump administration has “adequate controls” to protect taxpayer money in light of recent “extravagant air travel” by cabinet members, calling out in particular Pruitt’s flight to Italy for a summit in 2017 that racked up $120,249, and naming it “questionable and expensive travel at the taxpayer expense.”

That Administrator Scott Pruitt came to his EPA position with a decidedly industry-friendly bent is old news. That history, which includes 14 lawsuits against the agency — 13 of which also included players from EPA-regulated industries — continues to be relevant context in which to consider the activity of Mr. Pruitt and his EPA. In what may be an example of a quid pro quo arrangement tied to a fossil fuel industry lobbyist, in the last week of March ABC News reported that Pruitt had secured an unusually advantageous deal for his living arrangement — in a high-price Capitol Hill neighborhood — during his first six months in DC.

The rental property belongs in part (via an LLC) to the wife of a lobbyist, J. Steven Hart, who not only has contributed to Mr. Pruitt’s political campaigns, but also, represents a liquefied natural gas company. Administrator Pruitt secured a deal to pay $50 a night for a single bedroom in a condo, and only for the nights he actually used it, expending a total of $6,100 over the six months. Mr. Pruitt’s daughter stayed in a second bedroom while interning at the White House and frequently used the condo kitchen, though that was not part of the deal. Bloomberg News reported that initially, Mr. Pruitt could not produce any documentation demonstrating a lease arrangement or any rental payments; the landlord ultimately provided EPA officials with such evidence.

EPA officials defended the arrangement; EPA official Justina Fugh indicated that Mr. Pruitt had “paid a fair price for what amounts to just a room. . . . So I don’t even think that the fact the house is owned by a person whose job is to be a lobbyist causes us concern.” Critics think otherwise: Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, said in a news release, “This appears to be a gift from a lobbyist to the EPA administrator. . . . Scott Pruitt seems to be renting at well below market value — from a family member of a lobbyist who has business before the EPA.” Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said, “At the very least, it doesn’t look good for the administrator of EPA to have rented an apartment from the wife of an energy industry lobbyist who represents companies regulated by EPA.”

The editorial board of The Washington Post wrote, on April 2, that Ms. Fugh “described this as ‘a routine business transaction.’ Yet anyone who has suffered through finding a rental apartment in central Washington knows that reserving a bedroom for yourself at that price, paid for only sporadically and when you are in residence, without a year-long commitment, with a second bedroom available for family, is highly improbable if not impossible — without connections. . . . If Mr. Pruitt had paid fair rent on realistic terms, the connection would be merely concerning. In light of the cushy deal the administrator got, the arrangement is pure swamp.” The New York Times’s Paul Krugman went further in a March 30 Tweet, calling the deal a “de facto bribe.”

Media have covered this story as a potential conflict of interest scandal, noting that the arrangement creates at least the appearance of impropriety, if it does not constitute actual impropriety. Congressional Representative Carlos Curbelo has called Mr. Pruitt’s conduct “an embarrassment.” He and another Florida Republican, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have called for his resignation. Whether Administrator Pruitt’s spending or his special deal on housing would on their own merits win the attention of the White House is debatable. But the growing attention to Mr. Pruitt’s behavior is not likely welcome by the administration, which has in the past not appreciated being embarrassed by certain behaviors of its Cabinet members or appointees.

Source: https://grist.org/briefly/scott-pruitt-might-be-on-the-wrong-end-of-a-trump-tweet-soon-heres-why

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