Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is currently under fire for renting out a room in a condo that is partially owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist, as many, including member of Congress, see this as a major conflict of interest.
The condo is partially owned by Vicki Hart, the wife of lobbyist J. Steven Hart, who is the head of the lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, ABC News reports.
The controversial rental agreement between Pruitt and Hart is especially problematic due to the fact that the EPA, in March 2017, approved a Canadian energy company’s pipeline-expansion plan at the same time that Pruitt was renting out the condo, The New York Times reports. Pruitt was renting out the condo for only $50 a night, which would total approximately $1500 to rent out the room in the condo for an entire month.
The issue is that Pruitt had made a pledge to not accept any gifts from registered lobbyists, and that includes not accepting a reduced rent on the room. The EPA has claimed that this was fair market value for the rental, and EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said on Friday that this rental agreement was “consistent with federal ethics regulations.”
But there is concern that Pruitt was engaging in a conflict of interest, especially since other apartments in the area have been rented out for nearly $5,000 a month, ABC News reports.
“Entering into this arrangement causes a reasonable person to question the integrity of the E.P.A. decision,” said Don Fox, who served as general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics during parts of the Obama and Bush administrations.
“The people at the E.P.A. are charged with following the science and facts as it applies to individual decisions,” Cynthia Giles, who was an assistant administrator at the EPA in the Obama administration, said of Pruitt’s rental agreement, adding that the appearance of accepting gifts from those that could influence policy “is just not good judgment.”
Since this pipeline crosses over international border — with the oil coming from the Canadian tar sands — it requires a presidential permit, which is issued by the U.S. State Department after it receives a green light from other federal agencies, including the EPA, and has conducted an environmental review, The Times reports. In a letter to the State Department in March 2017, the EPA said that it had no environmental objections to the project, meaning that the Calgary-based company could now pump hundreds of thousands more gallons of oil into the U.S. every day.
According to The Times, the EPA’s sign-off on the pipeline-expansion came after the agency had just fined Enbridge $61 million at the end of the Obama administration for a 2010 pipeline failure that sent hundreds of thousands of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
Other concerns regarding Pruitt’s rental agreement stem from the fact that Pruitt was renting out this condo during the time that the EPA was also interacting with energy companies that Williams & Jensen were representing, The Times reports.
A spokesman for Williams & Jensen, however, did say that the lobbying firm did not engage Pruitt or the EPA on the Enbridge pipeline-expansion matter before or after Pruitt had stayed in the apartment, The Times reports.
But now Democrats on The Hill are questioning Pruitt’s rental agreement.
On Monday, several Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote a letter, expressing their concerns over Pruitt renting out the apartment owned by Hart, ABC News reports.
“We are concerned that the unique rental arrangement, in which you only paid rent on the nights you were in town for use of one bedroom in the home, could be a potential conflict of interest,” Reps. Frank Pallone, Diana DeGette, and Paul Tonko wrote.
According to ABC News, the committee has reached out to the EPA to receive more information concerning the rental agreement. The committee members have requested that the EPA respond to the letter by Monday, April 16.