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Scott Pruitt’s actions at the EPA have led to more than a dozen investigations

All of the investigations we know of, explained.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing several investigations for potential violations of the law and ethics rules.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

It’s become a weekly routine: New allegations of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s ethical lapses emerge. The media parses the details, like why the EPA spent an unprecedented $4.6 million on security for Pruitt, including $1,500 on “tactical pants.” Democrats call for Pruitt to resign. Republicans stroke their chins with “concern.” Pruitt blames the media and unwinds more EPA regulations. President Trump reaffirms his support for Pruitt, and the controversy gets shoved into the background. Repeat.

These alleged ethical lapses have triggered more than a dozen federal inquiries, audits, and investigations, and the scrutiny isn’t going away. Multiple institutions — including the Government Accountability Office, the EPA’s inspector general, the House Oversight Committee, and the White House — are investigating Pruitt’s indiscretions, including his first class luxury travel, a sweetheart housing deal with a lobbyist, and his use of a loophole to get raises for two close aides.

Politico reported over the weekend that yet another government watchdog, the US Office of Special Counsel, is now reviewing employee retaliation claims. At least six EPA staffers, some of whom have resigned, reported that they were forced out or sidelined when they objected to Pruitt’s security demands. (A spokesperson told Vox that OSC does not confirm or comment on any open investigations.)

The investigations will likely take months to complete, but they could change the balance of Pruitt’s standing in the White House as he struggles to keep his tally of deregulation at the EPA above his rising scandals. Pruitt has now set up a legal defense fund to cope with all of these inquiries, which could pose its own ethical quandaries.

Here is a list based on the best information we could gather on many of the investigations into his time in office:

The EPA’s in-house watchdog is on the case

The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General audits and investigates potential wrongdoing at the agency. Though it’s part of the EPA, Congress appropriates its budget separately to give it independence. The IG’s office confirmed to Vox that at least five audits related to Pruitt are underway.

An audit is a systematic assessment of how well an EPA office is doing its job, whereas an investigation is conducted in response to reports of wrongdoing and focus on an individual. The IG’s office does not confirm or deny the existence of ongoing investigations.

The five audits include:

  • An expanded audit of the “frequency, cost and extent of the Administrator’s travel” after reports of Pruitt’s penchant for first-class flights and nearly $200,000 in travel expenses. The audit focuses on travel up to December 31, 2017.
  • Pruitt has surrounded himself with an unprecedented 24-hour security detail with as many as 20 members that has accompanied him on personal trips to the Rose Bowl and to Disneyland. The IG is auditing the protective detail to see whether there are adequate controls on scheduling and approving employees’ time. This was rolled into a previous IG audit started in 2016 looking into overpayments to security detail staff.
  • Building on the previous audit, the IG is also looking into the ongoing cost of Pruitt’s bodyguards and potential overbilling in how the team recorded their hours.
  • The IG is also examining Pruitt’s use of administrative hiring under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which allows the EPA to bring on staff without approval from Congress or the White House. The audit includes the report that two close Pruitt aides received huge raises after the White House declined to grant the pay bumps. The IG issued a preliminary report on last month noting that the office didn’t receive any evidence that the pay raises were reversed. The aides, Millan Hupp and Sarah Greenwalt, have since resigned.
  • There is an audit of whether the EPA is properly preserving documents and responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. This emerged from concerns that senior officials were not saving text messages and emails while deliberately delaying the release of documents.

Meanwhile, the IG has placed the following additional matters under review to see whether they merit an audit or an investigation:

  • The IG is reviewing whether Pruitt violated anti-lobbying rules during an April 2017 meeting with the National Mining Association where he encouraged the group to press President Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord.
  • Samantha Dravis, an associate administrator for policy at the EPA who traveled abroad with Pruitt, abruptly resigned last month from her $179,700-a-year job. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) asked the IG last month to verify a report that she did not show up to work for much of the time between November 2017 and January 2018. The IG’s office confirmed to Vox that a review is underway.
  • The IG is also reviewing Pruitt’s housing arrangements. Pruitt leased a cushy condo close to Capitol Hill last year at the too-good-to-be-true rate of $50 a night, and only for the nights he stayed there. The condo belongs to the wife of a prominent lobbyist who petitioned the EPA on behalf of an energy utility, who asked Pruitt to hire a family friend, and whose firm represents major oil and gas interests.
  • Albert Kelly, an Oklahoma banker who lent money to Pruitt, was hired to run the EPA’s Superfund program. The IG is reviewing a request from Congress to look into whether this was an example of political patronage. Kelly has since resigned.
  • Another concern under review is that Pruitt asked aides to perform personal tasks for him, like finding housing, and the IG is reviewing whether this violated rules that limit how officials can direct their subordinates.
  • Several EPA employees said they were reassigned or fired after objecting to Pruitt’s lavish spending habits, so the IG is reviewing whether these are cases of retaliation.

The GAO is also scrutinizing the EPA

The GAO’s key responsibility is to keep track of how the government spends money, so it makes sense that the agency is very interested in what’s going on at the EPA. It concluded in April that the $43,000 soundproof phone booth Pruitt insisted upon for his office broke two laws that restrict how agencies can spend money.

In April, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) sent a letter to the GAO asking it to look into Pruitt’s potential misuse of hiring authority. A spokesperson for GAO said it will not begin work on this request until it the EPA IG completes its review, but did confirm to Vox three audits are underway or completed:

  • Pruitt had a soundproof phone booth built in his office to the tune of $43,000. The EPA IG and the GAO were both initially investigating the matter, but the IG yielded to the GAO to avoid duplicating their work. In April, the GAO reported that the phone booth broke two laws, one limiting office upgrades to $5,000 and one that prevents an agency from spending more money than allocated by Congress.
  • The GAO is also investigating Pruitt for violating an anti-propaganda law. Pruitt appeared in a video for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association asking ranchers to weigh in against an expansion of the Clean Water Act.
  • There’s also an ongoing GAO audit of Pruitt’s purge of the EPA’s science advisors last year under the guise of removing conflicts of interest.

Congress wants to know what’s up too

The House Oversight Committee is investigating Pruitt’s travels to Morocco and Italy, as well as his housing arrangements as part of one broad investigation. A spokesperson told Vox the Committee has already received 1,700 pages of documents.

The committee has already interviewed several EPA staffers, where it was revealed that Pruitt asked aides to perform personal tasks for him, including helping him find housing and asking the Trump International Hotel if he could buy a used mattress.

Committee Chair Trey Gowdy went on Fox News and mocked Pruitt’s excuses for wanting to fly first class.

The White House has launched its own investigation into Pruitt’s condo deal as well. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, four House Republicans have called on Pruitt to resign, while Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley have publicly criticized some of Pruitt’s policies at the EPA with respect to changing ethanol fuel mandates. The administrator’s allies in the fossil fuel sector and among conservative groups are rallying the troops to keep him in office, scrambling to justify his massive security detail and to brush off audits as a political ploy.

By the time these audits yield tangible results (it could be months), some of the pressure on Pruitt is likely to have dissipated. But environmentalists are energized and some Democrats smell blood in the water, so they aren’t likely to let this go and will continue making more inquiries.

And come November, the balance of power may shift in Congress. So the White House will have to weigh whether Pruitt can still advance the ball for the Trump agenda against the questions about his ethics.