An agency ethics official at the Environmental Protection Agency says Administrator Scott Pruitt's lease of a Capitol Hill condo tied to a prominent fossil-fuels lobbyist didn't violate federal ethics rules.
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A memo signed by Kevin Minoli contends that Pruitt's $50-a-night rental payments constitute a fair market rate. The memo was dated March 30, the day after ABC News first reported Pruitt lived last year in condo co-owned by the wife of Steven Hart, a registered lobbyist whose firm pushed EPA to relax pollution regulations. Pruitt's college-aged daughter stayed in the second bedroom while interning at the White House last summer.
Minoli's memo says the $50-a-night rate would total $1,500 for 30 nights a month, which he deemed to be a fair price.
Pruitt's lease, however, required him to pay just for nights he occupied in the unit. Pruitt actually paid a total of $6,100 over the six month period he leased the property, an average of about $1,000 a month.
But current rental listings for two-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood show they typically go for far more than what Pruitt paid. A two bedroom townhome on the same block as the one leased by Pruitt was advertised for rent on Monday at $3,750 a month. Another two-bedroom unit on the next block was advertised as available for $4,740 a month.
"The lease authorized use by the administrator and his immediate family, specifically including his spouse and children, and consistent with that provision of the lease his immediate family did stay there when they were in Washington, D.C.," Minoli wrote. "The lease did not require payment when the property was not utilized. Neither of these two provisions render the rental cost under the lease as something other than market value."
EPA did not provide a copy of Pruitt's lease and did not respond to questions about how Minoli determined what he considered to be the fair-market rate for the neighborhood. Also left unanswered was how Pruitt came to rent a property tied to a lobbyist with business interests involving his agency.
The unusual arrangement has attracted attention in Washington, where Pruitt has been under increasing scrutiny for this frequent taxpayer-funded travel, which has included first-class airline tickets. Though federal regulations typically require federal officials to fly in coach, the EPA chief has said he needed to sit in premium seats due to security concerns.
Jennifer Kaplan, a spokeswoman for EPA's Inspector General, said Monday the office is evaluating a request to investigate the circumstances surrounding the administrator's condo lease. The EPA watchdog is already probing Pruitt's 2017 travel spending.
Walter Shaub, who ran the U.S. Office of Government Ethics until last year, rated EPA's legal justification of Pruitt's living arrangements as "Total Baloney." He jokingly tweeted on Friday that he would like to rent the Harts prime location condo for $50-a-night.
"I'll only pay for nights I use it but need it held vacant all other nights," wrote Shaub, who has become a frequent critic of what he sees as ethical lapses in the Trump administration. "@EPA has certified that these are standard terms at market rate, so it shouldn't matter to you that I don't run EPA."
A Republican who previously served as the state attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt has long been a champion of the oil and gas industry. In the year he has served as the Trump administration's top environmental official, Pruitt has moved to scrap, gut or replace numerous environmental regulations opposed by the industry while boosting the continued burning of fossil fuels, which is the primary cause of climate change.
In a statement to The Associated Press last week, Steven Hart described Pruitt is a "casual friend" from Oklahoma with whom he had only occasional contact.
Records show the powerhouse lobbying firm where Hart serves as chairman and CEO, Williams and Jensen PLLC, represents companies that include Exxon Mobil and Cheniere Energy Inc.
In December, Pruitt and members of his staff spent about $40,000 in taxpayer funds to fly to Morocco to help encourage the North African kingdom to import liquefied natural gas from the United States. Cheniere is currently the only exporter of liquefied natural gas from the continental United States.
The firm also represents OGE Energy Corp., an electricity company serving Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Copies of Pruitt's daily calendar obtained by the AP through a public records request show that Pruitt meet in his EPA office with two top OGE executives and a registered lobbyist from Hart's firm in March 2017, when he was living at the condo.
In October, EPA announced it would rewrite the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation that sought to limit planet-warming carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants like those operated by OGE, which paid Hart's firm $400,000 in lobbying fees in 2017.
Follow Associated Press environmental reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck