EPA chief to skip Republican gala after ethics complaint

The Environmental Protection Agency chief on Thursday pulled out of a Republican fundraiser after a Democratic senator raised ethics concerns.

A spokesman for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he would not be attending next week's Oklahoma Republican Party gala. Pruitt, who previously served as Oklahoma's elected attorney general, had been scheduled as the keynote speaker.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse filed an ethics complaint against Pruitt on Tuesday. The Rhode Island Democrat says Pruitt's participation would violate the Hatch Act, which limits political activity by executive branch employees.

The invitation for the May 5 fundraiser sent out by the state GOP specifically praised Pruitt's support for cutting federal regulations limiting planet-warming carbon emissions. Before joining the Trump administration, Pruitt often raised campaign money from fossil-fuel companies and their executives.

"You do not want to miss Pruitt at this year's OKGOP Gala, as he discusses his plans to slash regulations, bring back jobs to Oklahoma, and decrease the size of EPA!" said a flyer for the event sent out by the state party. "Make sure to purchase your Gala tickets so you don't miss out on Administrator Pruitt's future plans and how he will continue to Drain the Swamp!"

EPA spokesman J.P. Freire said the agency did not approve of the legally questionable wording on the flyer.

"We worked closely with our ethics counsel to ensure compliance, and when we received the invitation, we understood immediately that it did not conform to our rules and acted accordingly," Freire said.

The Hatch Act prohibits executive branch employees from using their government position or tittle "while participating in a political activity" or "in connection with fundraising activities." Sponsorship levels for the upcoming GOP gala range from $2,000 to $5,000. Individual tickets for the dinner cost $100, with special "VIP" access available for another $50.

In his complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, Whitehouse said the GOP's invitation promoting Pruitt's appearance constitutes a "blatant violation" of the Hatch Act. The senator said Thursday a "thorough investigation" should go forward even though Pruitt is no longer going.

"Scott Pruitt has a long record of dark money fundraising and cozy relationships with big, fossil-fuel political donors," said Whitehouse, who is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "The American people need to know whether he is using his position at EPA to promote the political actors who support him."


Follow Associated Press environmental writer Michael Biesecker at www.Twitter.com/mbieseck