WASHINGTON – President Trump arrived in Washington promising to "drain the swamp," but his top environmental official has turned out to be a swamp creature himself: one who specializes in fortifying his own lagoon.
Luckily for Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt, much of what he has done has been buried on page A5 of newspapers and in the last 10 minutes of news broadcasts. That being the case, you might not have noticed the heavy accumulation of pond scum clinging to Pruitt after 14 months in office.
While mired in the muck, Pruitt has presided over a vast curtailing of the EPA's regulations and enforcement efforts, which will be detailed in a future Briefing. But for now, here's a handy compendium of what Pruitt has done to improve the environment – his environment:
- Pruitt installed a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth in his office, thereby violating a law barring presidential appointees from spending more than $5,000 on office improvements without notifying Congress. The Government Accountability Office outlined its concerns with Pruitt's soundproof booth this week without addressing the question that's probably bouncing around your brain just about now, which is: Why on earth would anyone ever need a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth?
- For about six months last year, Pruitt rented a room for $50 a night from the wife of an energy lobbyist. He only paid for the room while he stayed there, thereby paying only about $1,000 a month for lodging on Capitol Hill. This is problematic in two ways. First of all, rooms for rent in the nearby neighborhood typically go for $1,275 to $2,150 – meaning Pruitt got a discount. Worse yet, he got that discount from the wife of a business executive whose clients had interests before the EPA, a lobbyist whom Pruitt subsequently met with. And to top it all off, Pruitt fell behind on his rent on his sweetheart-deal condo.
- Pruitt likes to travel in style. The EPA inspector general is looking into his frequent taxpayer-funding trips to Oklahoma, his home state. He spent $120,000 on a trip with his entourage to Italy last summer, with included a series of official meetings as well as a private tour of the Vatican. He traveled first-class until recently, piling up nearly $68,000 in additional travel expenses over seven months. The most expensive trip? A four-day, $17,631 jaunt to Morocco to promote U.S. national gas exports – which doesn't quite seem to comport with the EPA's core mission of protecting human health and the environment.
- In light of all that, perhaps it's no surprise that Pruitt seems to think he is in physical danger. He has a full-time, around-the-clock security detail that's cost taxpayers nearly $3 million, amassing a protective team that's three times the size of the part-time force employed by the previous EPA administrator. There are even allegations that Pruitt brought his security guards with him on private trips to the Rose Bowl and Disneyland.
- Pruitt bypassed the White House to give big raises to his two favorite aides. Meantime, Pruitt pushed aside aides who raised concerns about his travel, his spending or his management of the agency.
None of this sort of thing is exactly new to Pruitt. Proof came earlier this week in this New York Times piece, which shows that Pruitt has been cozying up to lobbyists and benefiting from insider deals ever since his days as an Oklahoma state senator.
Pruitt plans to defend himself when he testifies on Capitol Hill on Thursday. His plan? Blame the staff.
Yet there's reason to wonder if President Trump – who vowed to hire "only the best people" – may be growing weary of Pruitt's pratfalls.
Asked about Pruitt Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: "We're reviewing some of those allegations. However, Administrator Pruitt has done a good job of implementing the president's policies, particularly on deregulation, making the United States less energy-dependent and becoming more energy-independent. Those are good things. However, the other things certainly are something that we're monitoring and looking at, and I'll keep you posted."
That's not exactly a vote of confidence, so don't be surprised if we soon find out that Pruitt is packing his bags for one final trip to Oklahoma.
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