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Petty Corruption at Large: Pruitt Spends your Tax Dollars on $35,000 Desks and a $43,000 Phone Booth

This is the first in a series of posts looking at ethics issues in the Trump Administration.

“You are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust,” Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey told Scott Pruitt, current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief, when Pruitt testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 25th of this year.

Pruitt is indeed unfit. If his business ties to the energy and coal companies that the EPA is intended to regulate didn’t disqualify him heading the agency in the first place, then his use of taxpayer dollars to fund his own lavish lifestyle certainly does.

Pruitt currently faces 13 federal inquiries into his spending and management practices as EPA chief. Here is a summary of current investigations into his spending:

Two investigations pending for a steeply discounted $50 a night condo rented from an energy lobbyist

Last year, Pruitt paid $50 a night to live in a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by the wife of J. Steven Hart, a lobbyist for the fossil industry who has made business requests to the EPA. Pruitt’s rent sat far below far market prices. Federal lobbying disclosures reveal that during the period that Pruitt was renting from Mr. Hart’s wife, several of Hart’s clients awaited the results of pending matters with the EPA.

One active investigation and one completed investigation into a $43,000 phone booth

The Government Accountability Office ruled that Pruitt broke the law when he failed to notify Congress of his purchase of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth. The Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act requires agencies to notify Congress of spending on office refurnishing exceeding the $5,000 limit. A second investigation into whether Pruitt was allowed to purchase the phone booth in the first place continues.

Four investigations into security spending  

During his first year in office, Mr. Pruitt spent nearly twice as much on security as his predecessors spent each year on average: the EPA spent $3.5 million taxpayer dollars on salary, overtime, and travel expenses for Pruitt’s 20-person security team in 2017. Investigators recently took up allegations that Pruitt improperly used his team for personal travel to Disneyland, a Rose Bowl game, and other leisure destinations.

Two investigations into travel expenses

The EPA Inspector General is taking a closer look at Pruitt’s use of public revenue to fund frequent visits to his home in Oklahoma, his flights on first-class private aircraft and military jets, and his trips to Italy and Morocco. Also under investigation is two weeks of travel in Italy for Pruitt and his aides last June that cost American taxpayers more than $120,000 and a 40-minute flight from Denver to Silverton, Colorado that cost $5,719.

Two investigations into pay raises for Pruitt Aides

Two aides received large raises in a process that failed to comply with usual procedures. After the White House did not approve raises for two Pruitt aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, Pruitt used a provision of the Safe Water Drinking Act to raise Ms. Greenwalt’s annual salary from $107,435 to $164,200 and Ms. Hupp’s salary from $86,460 to $114,590. Ms. Hupp likely violated federal ethics standards prohibiting personal assistance from a subordinate when she helped Pruitt search for a summer apartment, obtain tickets to the Rose Bowl game, and hunt down a used mattress from the Trump International hotel.

Pruitt has made other outrageous spending decisions not specifically targeted in these investigations. Fox News Research recently tweeted a breakdown of “(E)xpensive (P)ruitt (A)gency” spending, highlighting the purchase of two desks for $70K, 12 customized fountain pens for $1,560, and journals for $1,670.

Interestingly, Pruitt’s scandals sound a lot like petty graft by high-level officials in other countries. In an event hosted by the Open Government Hub in June — “When Heads of State are embroiled in Cases of Serious Crime and Corruption”—panelist David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch South Africa, likened the crooked practices of Jacob Zuma, former president of South Africa, to those of Scott Pruitt. Zuma resigned as president in February of 2018 after South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority reinstated charges of racketeering, fraud, money-laundering, and corruption. Two years prior to his resignation, South Africa’s top court ruled he had violated the constitution by buying a private rural estate with public dollars. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

This sort of petty corruption is arguably less harmful than the sort of corruption that allowed Zuma’s business associates to influence the allocation of government contracts, and allowed Pruitt to repeal climate laws at the behest of corporate energy lobbyists. However, petty graft is perhaps more effective at generating the public outrage that David Lewis identified as key to sustaining support for investigations into government officials. Lewis suggested that public opinion is more likely to be influenced by stories about $43,000 phone-booths—by a sense that “grubby hustlers are squeezing private gain from what is meant to be public service”—than it is to be influenced by systemic corruption. Going after frivolous theft at high-levels, he argued, could engage the public by illustrating, in tangible terms, the greed and entitlement of the state.

Environmental organizations, journalists, watchdog groups and congressional Democrats have certainly done much to bring Pruitt’s scandals to public light. How, then, does Pruitt survive?

For one, Pruitt’s ethical transgressions, though well-documented and well-publicized, may not be well-known. A May 2018 poll commissioned by Axios and conducted by HarrisX finds that 48 percent of Americans are not familiar with the scandals surrounding Pruitt and the EPA. Only 16 percent of 2000 survey respondents reported they were “very familiar” and 36 percent were “somewhat” familiar. 17 percent view Pruitt favorably, 22 percent unfavorably. However, 30 percent hold neither view, and 32 percent have never heard of him.

Another reason may be that Pruitt has yet to fall from Trump’s good graces. Politico reporter Jack Shafer writes that the EPA chief “perseveres mostly because the president admires his swagger.” Pursuing personal enrichment at public expense and deflecting outrage, unabashed are two moves out of Trump’s own playbook.

Mounting frustration from Republicans, however, could threaten their cozy relationship. Since the beginning of June, several Republican Senators have publicly voiced concerns about Pruitt’s management of the EPA, but stopped short of demanding he resign. Meanwhile, four House Republicans—Rep. Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), Ileana Ros-lehtinen (Fla.), and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) —have gone so far as to advocate for Pruitt’s firing. In addition to congressional pressure, it seems pressure from Trump loyalists is needed to sway the president’s opinion on Pruitt. Outrage from the president’s base would likely be decisive in a decision to fire the EPA chief—a decision which Republican Senators have left up to the administration (at least for now).

Your advocacy is critical in spreading information about Pruitt’s ethical scandals to those who are unaware, and in pressuring congressional Republicans to pressure Trump (ideally, before they retire from political office). Sign the Boot Pruitt petition. Share this blog, and other articles about EPA corruption, on your social media accounts and call your Republican representatives to demand they speak out now.