- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2018

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing fresh uncertainty about his political future after revelations that he rented a condominium from a powerful Washington lobbyist for $50 per night, the latest in a series of serious ethics questions that threaten to sink the chief architect of President Trump’s deregulatory push.

Mr. Pruitt’s rental of a condo — partially owned by Vicki Hart, a lobbyist whose husband has direct ties to the oil and gas industry — has led critics to charge that arrangement is, at best, a conflict of interest. At worst, they say, it was a sweetheart deal aimed at getting the administrator to further relax regulations on the fossil fuels sector.

Prominent Republicans say Mr. Pruitt, who has reversed many Obama-era climate change programs and scaled back a host of rules aimed at the oil, gas and coal industries, may not be able to recover.

In an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said there seem to be deep issues with Mr. Pruitt’s judgment.

“I don’t know how you survive this one, and if he has to go, it’s because he never should’ve been there in the first place,” Mr. Christie said. “This was a brutally unprofessional transition [at the EPA]. This was a transition that didn’t vet people for this type of judgment issues. If Mr. Pruitt’s going to go, it’s because he never should’ve been there in the first place.”

At $50 per night for a condo bedroom on Capitol Hill, booked on a nightly basis, Mr. Pruitt’s living expenses were far below market value. Even the cheapest single rooms in the major-chain hotels in that neighborhood typically start at four or five times that amount.

Mr. Pruitt’s daughter was also staying at that condo for part of the time, but it was not clear what her payment arrangements were.

Furthermore, Mrs. Hart’s husband, J. Steven Hart, is chairman of the lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, which represents Exxon Mobil and other companies in the oil and gas sector.

Late last week, Mr. Hart told The Associated Press that he had no contact with Mr. Pruitt for many months and that the lease represented a “market-based, short-term” agreement.

EPA officials also deny any impropriety and say the deal was fully vetted by the agency’s ethics office.

The EPA late last week released an ethics review that found the lease was “consistent with federal ethics regulations regarding gifts.”

“As EPA career ethics officials stated in a memo, Administrator Pruitt’s housing arrangement for both himself and family was not a gift and the lease was consistent with federal ethics regulations,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement.

But that ethics conclusion has done little to quiet critics of Mr. Pruitt, who has consistently courted controversy with expenses for living, travel and work.

Last year, Mr. Pruitt spent more than $40,000 in taxpayer money to install a soundproof phone booth in his office at the EPA.

The administrator also has come under fire for spending tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money on first-class airline tickets rather than flying coach. The EPA has said unprecedented security concerns and threats directed at the administrator made coach travel untenable.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, sent a letter last week to the EPA’s inspector general saying he had obtained information showing that Mr. Pruitt used his taxpayer-funded security detail for private family trips, such as a vacation to Disneyland.

Agency officials said Mr. Pruitt’s security protocol is the same whether he is on a personal trip or government travel.

The growing list of ethics questions around Mr. Pruitt have given Democrats more ammunition to cast the administrator as a poor steward of taxpayer funds.

On the specific question of the condo, Democrats said there is a direct link between Mr. Pruitt’s cheap housing and his status as the lead actor in a push to deregulate the energy sector.

“Scott Pruitt has reached an astonishing new low, as we’ve now learned that he accepted an offer from a D.C. lobbyist to rent a condo in Washington at far below market value,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Daniel Wessel. “With all the favorable actions Pruitt has taken for industry insiders, it raises the question of how many of those decisions benefited his lobbyist landlord.”

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, said the condo underscores deeper problems.

“You’ve got a guy who is head of the EPA who is nothing more than a frontman for the fossil fuel industry,” he said.

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