EPA’s senior ethics counsel said Friday she didn’t think Administrator Scott Pruitt’s reported room rent deal with the wife of an energy lobbyist was prohibited.
“I don’t conclude that this is a prohibited gift at all,” counsel Justina Fugh said in a statement provided to USA TODAY. “It was a routine business transaction and permissible even if from a personal friend.
Per media reports, Pruitt paid $50 a night to rent a room on Capitol Hill. But here’s the crux of that deal: The apartment is owned by health care lobbyist Vicki Hart, who is married to energy lobbyist J. Steven Hart, according to Bloomberg News and ABC News.
According to EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox, Pruitt, who became administrator in February 2017, signed a lease to rent a bedroom in a condo while transitioning to Washington. He then moved out at the end of July 2017.
Wilcox did not confirm to USA TODAY that the condo was owned by Vicki Hart.
EPA officials reportedly looked for documentation that Pruitt paid rent after ABC News reported Thursday about the living arrangement.
The connection to J. Steven Hart — who serves as chairman of a lobbying firm that represents major energy industry interests — could raise questions about the deal.
Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat who often calls on more oversight of the Trump administration, called for Pruitt’s resignation.
“Scott Pruitt has conducted himself terribly, without regard for environmental protection,” Beyer said in a statement. “Pruitt’s secret rent deal with a lobbyist for companies regulated by the EPA is much like his many other scandals. Pruitt must resign. If he refuses to do so he should be fired immediately.”
Watchdog group Public Citizen has asked EPA’s inspector general to launch an investigation into Pruitt’s rental arrangement, saying that it could have violated rules if the administrator paid less than market rate values.
“If the rental arrangement was anything other, it would at least constitute a violation of the federal statutes and executive branch rules prohibiting gifts to covered officials from prohibited sources,” the group wrote in a letter.
If Pruitt were paying on a monthly basis, his rent for his room in the two-bedroom apartment would be between $1,400 and $1,550, depending on the month. That’s on par with the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment on the Hill, which goes for around $2,950, according to Rent Cafe.
Per the reports, Pruitt only pays for the nights he actually spends in the room. It’s sort of akin to booking a room through private rental site Airbnb.
Bloomberg reviewed six canceled checks written by Pruitt that showed he had paid $6,100 total from March 18, 2017, to Sept. 1, 2017, on sporadic dates. Here’s the breakdown:
- $450 on March 18
- $900 on April 26
- $850 on May 15
- $700 on June 4
- $1,500 on July 22
- $1,700 on Sept. 1
The reports come as Pruitt faces scrutiny over other issues, ranging from racking up more than $105,000 on first class flights in his first year at EPA to installing a $25,000 sound-proof booth in his office.
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