Former ethics officials concerned over Pruitt's room rental from lobbyist

Former ethics officials concerned over Pruitt's room rental from lobbyist
© Greg Nash

Two former ethics officers who worked with the White House and Congress are calling reports that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits Press: Acosta, latest to walk the plank Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards MORE and his daughter rented a condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist for $50 a night highly concerning and potentially illegal.

Former White House ethics czar Norm Eisen called the EPA’s confirmation that Pruitt paid the equivalent of $50 a night for his stay at the luxury condo on Capitol Hill — while only paying for nights he was there — a likely “major violation.”

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Eisen pointed out that the price that Pruitt allegedly spent for the use of the home for roughly six months ending in July was concerning for its below-market value.

“This is WAY below market,& if true arrangement was that lobbyist’s wife reserved room for Pruitt on demand, then he in effect had it year-round. Real rate drops to approx. $25 per night! For use of entire 2-room luxury condo? MAJOR VIOLATION 5 cfr 2635.202,” Eisen tweeted Friday.

Following reports later Friday that Pruitt’s daughter McKenna also stayed with him in a separate bedroom in the condo for three months while she interned at the White House last summer, Eisen tweeted that Pruitt’s actions could even be criminal.

Folks, this may have just crossed into criminal territory. Pruitt & family apparently [received] tens of thousands of dollars in luxury housing benefits from wife of lobbyist w/interests [before] EPA— spouses are also prohibited sources. Quid pro quo under 18 usc 201?” he tweeted.

Former Director of Office of Government Ethics Walter ShaubWalter Michael ShaubEx-ethics chief rips Trump July 4 event as 'taxpayer-funded campaign ad' Here are the top paid White House staffers The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts handshake with Kim, tariff freeze with Xi MORE said Friday that Pruitt’s use of the condo appeared dubious, arguing that at the very least “Pruitt owes the public an explanation as to his analysis of the relevant factors so we can understand how he arrived at the conclusion that no reasonable person would be concerned if he accepted a gift of below market rate lodging from a lobbyist.”

Shaub was ethics director for four years under President Obama and oversaw ethics in the Trump administration until July 2017, the same month Pruitt stopped his rental on the condo.

Shaub tweeted Friday that the reports “cast doubt” on whether Pruitt paid market value for the room, or potentially rooms, at the condo “if he had the place to himself and paid only $50.”

He said the question now comes down to whether the government’s personal relationship exception to the gift rule applies. For Pruitt to be able to establish that he would have to prove that he had a long-lasting personal relationship with the condo’s landlord — the wife of energy lobbyist J. Steven Hart.

“The circumstances must 'make it clear' that the gift was motivated solely by the personal relationship, and the burden of demonstrating such circumstances is on the employee,” Shaub tweeted.

The EPA previously confirmed to the Hill that Pruitt paid for only one bedroom in the condo while he was there. The agency did not respond to request for comment about what Pruitt’s daughter paid for her bedroom and if she, too, paid a nightly rate during her months-long stay in Washington, D.C.

Bloomberg reported Friday that Pruitt’s payments just covered his room in the two-bedroom unit. Under the lease he did not have “liberal” use of the common areas.

However, Pruitt on occasion used the condo’s communal space for business meetings and personal socializing, a former EPA employee with knowledge of his living arrangement told The Hill.

Justina Fugh, the senior counsel for ethics at the EPA, told a BuzzFeed News reporter on Friday that she did not know that Pruitt’s daughter was renting the second bedroom of the condo when she gave her initial statement.

In her statement, provided to The Hill early Friday, Fugh said, “I don’t conclude that this is a prohibited gift at all. It was a routine business transaction and permissible even if from a personal friend.”