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The scandal-plagued EPA administrator wants contributions to his legal defense fund

Legal aid for Scott Pruitt could invite more ethics problems.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifying before the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the environment on May 16, 2018.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifying before the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the environment on May 16, 2018.
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.

In a hearing before the Senate, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt confirmed on Wednesday for the first time that he has set up a legal defense fund to deal with his snowballing ethical improprieties.

Pruitt largely deflected and denied the allegations of wrongdoing from lawmakers, though there are at least a dozen inquiries into the EPA under his watch, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) already concluded that at least one indiscretion, Pruitt’s $43,000 phone booth, violated two laws.

Dealing with this deluge of accusations is time-consuming and expensive, and a legal defense fund would provide Pruitt with a way to get some outside help from allies.

A fund like this is typically a separate account created to pay for litigation and legal fees with private contributions. But as Rebecca Leber at Mother Jones explained, it could lead to yet another conflict for Pruitt:

Legal defense funds aren’t that unusual: The Clintons used them, and they’ve cropped up again in the Trump administration to help defray the costs for officials and campaign staffers in Robert Mueller’s investigation.

But as the head environmental regulator, Pruitt having a legal defense fund raises even more questions for government ethics experts, who have trouble envisioning how he will accept donations without creating another ethical mess. “Any time Pruitt has an opportunity to use public office for private gain, I would raise a red flag,” says Kathleen Clark, legal ethics professor at the Washington University in St. Louis.

One of the basic questions is where the money for this fund would come from. “The usual suspects [are] the people who shouldn’t donate, people with a stake before the EPA,” Clark added.

Politico reported that Pruitt is already working with Paul Rauser, co-founder of the Aegis Law Group, whose practice “focuses on domestic and international white-collar criminal defense.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), one of the few senators to actually attend the entire Appropriations Committee’s environment subcommittee hearing, zeroed in on the potential for even more ethics conflicts with the fund: that it could become another venue for industry to buy influence at the EPA. He then pressed Pruitt to commit to making all donations to the fund public, to refuse anonymous donations, and to refuse money from groups with business before the agency.

“I want to make sure however that works, you’re not subject to more allegations or complaints that you’re violating the public trust,” he said.

“Whatever discussions with GAO and White House counsel’s office yields in that regard, we’ll abide by,” Pruitt replied.

But even if he complies with all rules and ethics regulations, let’s recall the extraordinary fact that Pruitt even needs a legal defense fund in the first place.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the ranking member of the environment subcommittee, noted that by his count, there are upward of 16 federal investigations into the EPA under Pruitt across the inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

And on Monday, the EPA’s Inspector General Arthur Elkins wrote a letter to lawmakers letting them know that Pruitt asked for and received a 24/7, 20-person security detail from his first day in office, before many of the threats Pruitt cited as justification had occurred.

Udall announced that he asked the GAO to launch yet another inquiry into whether the EPA violated the Hatch Act and anti-lobbying rules.

The lone Republican who remained the whole time (the chair) expressed frustration with Pruitt.

“I’m being constantly asked to comment on your housing, security, and travel,” said subcommittee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). “I do think there are legitimate questions that need to be answered.”

During the hearing, environmental activists held up signs saying “fire him” and followed Pruitt out of the room wearing green T-shirts with the words “Impeach Pruitt” as he dodged reporters.

Though the campaign by activists and Democrats to boot Pruitt out of office is not letting up, the administrator continues to hold President Donald Trump’s confidence as one of the executive branch’s most productive deregulators.

And in a White House consumed with its own ethics scandals and its own legal troubles, Pruitt’s problems will likely remain on the back burner.

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