Six steps Pruitt must take on his legal defense fund to avoid another scandal

Six steps Pruitt must take on his legal defense fund to avoid another scandal
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EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE, facing a dozen federal investigations, has now hired a major white-collar defense lawyer, Paul Rauser of the Aegis Law Group. To pay his expenses, he's established a legal defense fund, which raises serious ethical issues.

The central question has become: Will Pruitt defend himself from charges that he's too cozy with lobbyists by raising money from them?

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At a recent hearing, Senator Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOvernight Defense: Details on defense spending bill | NATO chief dismisses talk of renaming HQ for McCain | North Korea warns US over cyber allegations Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law Trump authorizes sanctions against foreign governments that interfere in US elections MORE (D-Md.) asked Pruitt if he would refuse money from anyone with business before EPA, ban anonymous contributions, and make all donations public. Although he tried to provide some assurances, he tellingly concluded with a classic Pruitt dodge, “Whatever discussions with GAO and White House counsel’s office yields in that regard, we’ll abide by.

 

These words are especially problematic because Pruitt gave the same kind of answer early in his term, when he was asked to recuse himself from issues on which he had a conflict of interest. He never did so, and presumably never intended to.

In both cases, instead of committing to strong ethical standards that would actually set an example, he essentially said he would do whatever the White House lawyers and loose statues let him get away with. Right and wrong were not part of the calculation. 

Pruitt is known for offering slippery answers —and sometimes outright falsehoods — to everyone from Congress to Fox News. So it is critical that he be pressed on exactly how he would govern his legal defense fund. 

Tellingly, Pruitt failed to mention that many federal rules on legal defense funds are guidelines, not requirements. Pruitt, who has trouble obeying even mandatory rules, can't be counted on to follow the suggested ethical guardrails. The Hill even reported that Pruitt will allow “allies” and “lobbyists” to contribute to the fund.

For the American people to have confidence the in operations of Pruitt's defense fund, he must take six steps:

  1. Refuse donations from all lobbyists and anyone having business before EPA. Simply barring himself from personally soliciting these funds is not enough. Pruitt has made the legalistic point that “I don’t accept donations. I don’t solicit donations. That’s done by attorneys and others.”It will not be reassuring if his political allies pass the hat among K Street lobbying firms and big energy companies. 
  1. He must disclose all donations within 24 hours, just like many states require for campaign donations. Not only is full disclosure important, it must be quick. The current federal guidance only asks for annual disclosure, which would prevent any useful accountability of Pruitt’s actions.
  1. He must refuse anonymous donations. It is too easy for interested donors to quietly make it known to the administrator that they've contributed to his cause. Policing that would be impossible.
  1. He must issue the guidelines for governing his fund in writing in a letter to Congress, and the federal Office of Government Ethics. The rules must be clear and public. 
  1. He must commit that no government funds or staff will be used in soliciting funds, arranging travel that includes soliciting funds, or any other support for the defense fund other than legal and disclosure activities. This includes off-hours time. Among the ethical accusations against Pruitt is that he misused staff time, including using one of his assistants tohandle his apartment search. American taxpayers should not be paying to raise money for Pruitt's personal defense.
  1. Every entity that donates to the legal defense find must be fully transparent: no 501(c)(4)s, no shell companies, no entity where a single member or dollar is hidden.

There is nothing inherently wrong with creating a legal defense fund. Government officials should not have to go broke defending themselves — even ones, like Pruitt, who have brought so much avoidable trouble on themselves. But the American people need reassurance that these funds won't become another swamp of influence, favoritism or trading cash for access. 

American families and communities deserve an EPA administrator who spends more time cleaning up our air and water than cleaning up after his own ethical messes. But since President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency MORE has given us Pruitt, it is the responsibility of the Congress, the press, and the public to push for minimum standards of behavior. Without taking the steps outlined above, Pruitt's commitments are meaningless.

Keith Gaby is senior communications director (climate, health and political affairs) at Environmental Defense Fund.