Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who was appointed by President Donald Trump to head the Environmental Protection Agency and has been in the middle of a number of scandals since taking the job, finds himself in the midst of yet another ethics scandal.
Pruitt, who has been at the center of scandals involving receiving a lucrative deal on a condominium rental from the wife of an energy lobbyist, ordering government employees to do private work for him, granting an unauthorized pay raise to one of his employees, ordering an expensive soundproof box, arranging for needlessly expensive travel for himself on the taxpayers' dime, meeting with energy executives regularly since the start of his tenure and punishing employees who attempted to blow the whistle on his controversial activities, allegedly attempted to help his wife open up a Chick-fil-A franchise. As The New York Times reported:
Emails released to the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act show that Sydney Hupp, a former scheduler for Mr. Pruitt, contacted Chick-fil-A’s chief executive, Dan T. Cathy, in May 2017 at Mr. Pruitt’s behest to set up a meeting.
After a back-and-forth in which Ms. Hupp initially said the administrator “didn’t mention a specific topic” of discussion, she told the company’s director of regulatory affairs that Mr. Pruitt’s request was of a personal nature. “The Administrator would like to talk about a potential business opportunity with Mr. Cathy. Nothing very pressing, just hoping to connect sometime in the next month or so,” Ms. Hupp wrote.
Mr. Pruitt ultimately spoke by phone with Chick-fil-A representatives.
Mr. Cathy, reached by phone, referred questions to a company spokeswoman, Carrie Kurlander. Ms. Kurlander said she would not comment further. In an email to The Washington Post, which first reported Mr. Pruitt’s effort to seek a business deal with Chick-fil-A, Ms. Kurlander had said the call was about the possibility of Mr. Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn, opening a franchise of the fast food chain. Ms. Kurlander told the Post that Mrs. Pruitt never completed the franchisee application.
Part of the problem facing Pruitt here is that the Chick-fil-A scandal is hardly an isolated incident.
One of his top aides, Millan Hupp, announced her resignation on Wednesday as a result of the numerous scandals, according to The Atlantic. EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told The Atlantic when questioned, "You have a great day, you’re a piece of trash."
"It's rare to see more than one or two scandals involving an administrator, if at all, during an entire administration," Jordan Libowitz, the communications director of the Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Salon. "To have over a dozen at this point, it's shocking that he could keep his job."
Libowitz's concerns were echoed by Corey Goldstone, media strategist for the Campaign Legal Center.
"Pruitt’s behavior has shown his casual disregard for ethical norms," Goldstone told Salon by email. "At the very least, Pruitt’s use of an agency staffer to try and secure employment for his wife is a misuse of his government position. At the most, it raises questions about whether he broke federal code for the inducement or coercion of benefits through use of his office."
He also noted that this is hardly the worst scandal Pruitt has been caught up in.
"Arguably, Pruitt’s apartment arrangement is worse. It raises all sorts of red flags. We’ve learned that the lobbyist – who had business before the EPA – appeared to give Pruitt a favorable rental deal," Goldstone told Salon.
Yet despite the deluge of scandals, Pruitt seems to be secure in his job as head of the EPA, a fact that has also raised eyebrows among ethics experts.
"It's pretty clear at this point that the Trump administration does not care about ethics scandals," Libowitz told Salon.
Goldstone pointed out that the situation has reached a point where the federal government needs to intervene.
"It’s important that the EPA’s Office of Inspector General thoroughly reveal all ongoing inquiries related to Pruitt, including his use of first-class travel, security detail, staff raises, and reassignments of other employees," Goldstone told Salon. "If the Office of Inspector General is not conducting thorough and independent oversight, Congress must step in and investigate the conduct at the agency."
Libowitz had a similar observation."I think the tone is set at the top. If he is allowed to do this kind of thing, who else is going to do it? It sends a signal to other people in the government that ethics rules don't really apply," Libowitz told Salon.
When Pruitt was asked about the Chick-fil-A scandal on Wednesday, he initially characterized it as a reaction to his policies before praising the franchise's conservative Christian owners and then boosting their product.
"With great change comes, you know, I think opposition," Pruitt said. "There is significant change that's happening not only in the EPA but across this administration, and it's needed. And, look my wife is an entrepreneur herself. I love, she loves, we love Chick-Fil-A. It's a franchise of faith and it's one of the best in the country. And that's something we're very excited about. And we need more of them in Tulsa and we need more of them across the country. So anyway. So it's an exciting time."
One of the reasons why Pruitt's job seems to be secure, despite the growing number of scandals, is that President Donald Trump is reportedly interested in using him as a replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with whom Trump has had a falling out due to Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Trump also shares Pruitt's ideology when it comes to environmental issues, particularly when it comes to his skepticism toward man-made climate change and his belief that environmental regulations do little more than stifle business development.
Interestingly, Pruitt has also been effectively challenged recently on his policymaking. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a successful Freedom of Information Act request to understand Pruitt's claim that science does not support the notion that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming, according to Scientific American. A judge ruled that "particularly troubling is the apparent premise of this agency challenge to the FOIA request, namely: that the evidentiary basis for a policy or factual statement by an agency head, including about the scientific factors contributing to climate change, is inherently unknowable."