WASHINGTON — Facing more than a dozen investigations into his conduct last spring, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that he was starting a legal defense fund, raising concerns about the propriety of a government official raising money to fend off official investigations into potential misuse of government funds, among other improprieties.
Those suspicions have been confirmed, with the EPA’s acting inspector general, Charles Sheehan, writing in a letter to Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., and other House Democrats that the inspector general’s office “never had a conversation with Mr. Pruitt or his private attorney about the existence or establishment of a legal defense fund. In addition, no advice was given to Mr. Pruitt about the matter while he worked at the EPA.”
Pruitt was criticized while in office for frequently trying to avoid agency regulations, while blaming career staff for his infractions.
Pruitt announced the creation of the legal fund during testimony before a Senate committee. “I don’t accept donations. I don’t solicit donations,” Pruitt said at the time. “That’s done by attorneys and others.” He added that he would abide by any guidance from the Government Accountability Office and White House counsel’s office.
The White House counsel at the time was Don McGahn, who was focused on installing conservative judges on the federal bench, says a lawyer who worked with him in the West Wing. That lawyer said McGahn was lackadaisical about ethical matters. Pruitt, and other Cabinet members, were able to exploit that inattention. As for the GAO, it is unclear how, or why, it would be involved in reviewing Pruitt’s legal defense fund, since that would have been well outside the agency’s purview.
Neither the EPA nor the White House responded immediately to requests for comment.
Donors included, for example, a billionaire activist from Wisconsin. A watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, logged a complaint about the fund with the Office of Government Ethics. “Allowing this Pruitt slush fund signals that the entire Trump cabinet can do the same thing, making our Capitol a far more ethically swampy place than it has ever been,” the group’s executive director said at the time.
Pruitt finally resigned in early July 2018, after attempting to lobby Trump for the job of U.S. attorney general, then held by Jeff Sessions, who would manage to outlast Pruitt by several months. Sheehan’s letter to House Democrats says that “since Mr. Pruitt left the agency, no further OIG action is warranted,” referring to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.
Beyer, who has been one of Pruitt’s most assiduous pursuers in Congress, celebrated the report’s finding as confirmation of the former EPA administrator’s inability to adhere to the rules. It is an inability shared by several other Cabinet chiefs, a number of whom have had to resign after facing questions about use of government airplanes and other matters.
“Donald Trump has presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in American history,” Beyer said, “and finds new ways to break his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ every day.”
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