Pruitt is gone, but the investigations remain
Scott Pruitt has left the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but that doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the congressional and federal investigations that contributed to his downfall as head of the agency.
Pruitt, whose tenure at the EPA was marred by ethics and spending scandals, faces dozens of probes by the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and others.
The House Oversight Committee confirmed that it will continue its investigation into Pruitt’s lavish travel and security spending, as well as his below-market rate apartment rental from a lobbyist. The panel, led by outgoing Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), has already interviewed several political aides at EPA whose testimony played a key role in unearthing other controversies that contributed to Pruitt’s departure.
Kevin Chmielewski, the former EPA official who has been outspoken regarding a number of Pruitt’s alleged government spending and ethics violations, told The Hill on Friday that the House Oversight Committee is scheduled to interview him for eight hours next week. He said he expects to be asked in detail about Pruitt’s requests of staffers and personal spending.
The EPA’s OIG, meanwhile, says it hasn’t decided whether to pursue its pending investigations. Shortly after Pruitt announced his resignation, the inspector general told several news outlets that its probes would continue. The office has since walked back that statement.
“We are assessing and evaluating this latest news,” spokeswoman Jennifer Kaplan said in the latest statement.
The OSC, an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency, rarely comments on the status of investigations, and didn’t respond to requests for comment regarding the status of its Pruitt probe.
But even proponents of the investigations into Pruitt acknowledge that his resignation means it’s unlikely that the probes will proceed with the same fervor now that Pruitt has stepped down, meaning some aspects may be left unresolved.
“Previously, when we did stuff like this, when the person who’s the target resigned, we’d usually kind of stop, because you’ve got your goal,” said a former House Oversight Committee staffer. “Once someone leaves, there are plenty of other targets to go after.”
A House Democratic staffer whose congressman supported a number of the inspector general investigations said that while Democrats hope those reports will be finalized, the timeline will likely slow down.
“There is less pressure on them just because Pruitt is gone, and they won’t have members of Congress writing them constantly to investigate Pruitt as they have been used to,” the staffer said.
Last week, a top EPA ethics official reportedly urged the agency’s inspector general to investigate new allegations against Pruitt that he asked employees to help him with his housing search and to find a job for his wife.
Now that Pruitt has resigned, any reports the inspector general’s office provides won’t carry as much weight since ethics violations are typically met with an administrative action. Now that Pruitt is no longer an agency employee, there are no actions the office can take.
Phyllis Anderson, a former ethics official at the EPA, said Pruitt’s departure likely ends any possibility of punishment against him.
“Most of his transgressions involved the federal standards of conduct, a regulation,” she said, adding that the probes would probably end with watchdog reports. “Unless he involved himself in a particular matter in which he had a direct and predictable financial interest, his activities are merely improper.”
Still, any findings from those probes will likely be a gift to Democrats, environmentalists and other opponents of the Trump administration, while further damaging Pruitt’s image in the public eye.
“Whether it’s spending lavishly on luxury fountain pens or doing the bidding of the industries he’s deregulating, I think the investigations need to be completed so that Americans can regain their trust in the safeguarding their air and water,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “If these investigations aren’t seen all the way through, I think it’ll be hard to restore that trust.”
Regardless of whether the findings can result in punitive measures against Pruitt, many Democrats hope they will hurt the Republican Party heading into the November midterm elections, especially since few GOP lawmakers had called for Pruitt’s ousting.
“I think when the OIG reports comes out, and if any of them say he broke laws or violated regulations — people will ask, where was Congress?” the House Democratic staffer said.