After Raising Concerns About Scott Pruitt, A Number Of EPA Officials Were Demoted

Apr 6, 2018
Originally published on April 6, 2018 11:44 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been a rough week for Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Nearly every day has brought new accusations of ethics violations or improper spending. And with every new accusation comes new pressure to resign, even from some Republicans. NPR's Rebecca Hersher is here to help us sort through it. Hey there, Rebecca.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: All right, let's sort. Give me the rundown of Pruitt's ethics woes.

HERSHER: Too many scandals. So (laughter)...

KELLY: Too many to list.

HERSHER: There are two main issues here - how he spends public money and his close ties to the industries that the EPA regulates. So he's spent a lot of money on travel and security - tens of thousands of dollars on soundproof phone booth for his office and 24/7 security detail, first-class plane tickets for travel. We've actually known about that since last August.

But then, this week, news that Pruitt sidestepped the White House to give big raises to two political staffers. And then the condo. So this is a Capitol Hill condo owned by the wife of a major energy lobbyist. Pruitt rented a room there. All of these are being investigated internally at EPA.

KELLY: OK. And one other new wrinkle to throw in. Yesterday the New York Times was reporting that there were EPA staffers who were raising questions about some of this, and they were sidelined. What do we know?

HERSHER: Yeah. There were some reports that senior staff at EPA are concerned with Pruitt's behavior and spending. Reportedly, a couple top political appointees were threatening to resign over this. And then also allegations that some EPA officials who did question how much he was spending were reassigned to less powerful positions within the agency. So one example of this, Pruitt was apparently - he wanted to turn on the sirens in his motorcade to get to a restaurant. And when he was told by a security official, you know, that's really for emergencies, that official was reassigned.

KELLY: Let me take a step back for the - you know, the why-all-this-matters questions. I mean, is there evidence that any of these ethics issues has affected the way Pruitt is running the EPA, if they affected his approach to environmental policy?

HERSHER: You know, there is some. The condo is the big one. You know, the husband of the woman who owns this condo, Steven Hart, he works for a major D.C. lobbying firm. Now, earlier this week, Pruitt said in an interview on Fox News that Hart doesn't lobby on behalf of any companies with business before the EPA. It was a really combative interview with Fox's Ed Henry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS")

ED HENRY: You're renting it from the wife of a lobbyist.

SCOTT PRUITT: Yeah. Who has no business before this agency.

HENRY: Hold on a second. So...

PRUITT: Who has no business...

HENRY: ...Mr. Hart is at Williams & Jensen, right? Major lobbying firm. Exxon Mobil's a client.

PRUITT: Mr. Hart has no clients...

HENRY: Does Exxon Mobil have business before you, sir?

PRUITT: Mr. Hart has no clients that has business before this agency.

HERSHER: Here's the problem with that. The next day, it came out that Steven Hart represents multiple companies with business before the EPA. He represents a big natural gas exporter. Pruitt is trying to boost American natural gas exports. And he represents two other companies that are currently negotiating with the EPA over fines or cleanup costs for pollution.

KELLY: All right. Well, let me ask you what the Trump administration is saying about all this, most particularly what President Trump is saying about all this. He's the one who ultimately will decide whether these prove insurmountable problems for Scott Pruitt and his leadership at the EPA.

HERSHER: Well, on one hand there have been multiple reports that senior advisers to President Trump are not happy with Pruitt and all this bad press. But ultimately, the president, as you said, he's the one who decides who stays and who goes. And here's what he said on Air Force One yesterday, coming back from West Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just left coal and energy country. They love Scott Pruitt.

HERSHER: And many Republicans in Congress support Pruitt. They say he's done a great job carrying out Trump's deregulation agenda.

KELLY: All right. That sounds like a watch-this-space cliffhanger. Rebecca Hersher, NPR's science reporter. Thanks so much.

HERSHER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.