WASHINGTON — An Environmental Protection Agency lawyer said he wasn’t provided the full facts when he ruled there was no ethics violation in Administrator Scott Pruitt’s lease of a bargain-priced Capitol Hill condo with ties to a fossil fuels lobbyist.
In the meantime, White House officials sounded increasingly doubtful Thursday about Pruitt’s future in the administration, though President Donald Trump threw a public lifeline to his embattled environmental chief.
Trump, asked if he still has confidence in Pruitt while boarding Air Force One, responded, “I do.”
In a letter dated Wednesday, EPA ethics lawyer Kevin Minoli said his finding last week that Pruitt was paying fair-market value was based on the assumption that Pruitt occupied only one bedroom for $50 a night, as outlined in the lease.
Media reports later disclosed that Pruitt’s college-aged daughter occupied a second bedroom in the unit while she interned at the White House last summer. Minoli said he did not consider the value of a second room in his analysis.
Pruitt paid about $1,000 a month, less than a third of what Minoli’s review found nearby two-bedroom homes listed for.
“Some have raised questions whether the actual use of the space was consistent with the terms of the lease,” Minoli wrote Wednesday. “Evaluating those questions would have required factual information that was not before us and the review does not address those questions.”
The Associated Press obtained a copy of Minoli’s letter, which was first reported by CNN.
Pruitt had gone on the offensive Wednesday trying to shore up his position in a series of interviews with Fox News and conservative media outlets during which he continued to suggest he had lived alone.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that Trump is not OK with some of the details that have emerged, including news this week of enormous raises awarded to two of Pruitt’s closest aides. Pruitt says he didn’t approve the raises and doesn’t know who did.
On Thursday, Deputy White House Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told Fox News: “I can’t speak to the future of Scott Pruitt.”
“They say we all serve at the pleasure of the president,” Gidley later told reporters. “If he’s not pleased you’ll know it. … The president himself said he had confidence (in Pruitt), and so that’s where we stand today.”
A review of Pruitt’s conduct by White House officials is underway, adding to other probes being conducted by congressional committees and EPA’s internal watchdog.
Amid the ethics cloud over Pruitt, another of his closest aides has resigned. Samantha Dravis served as Pruitt’s senior counsel and associate administrator for policy. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said Thursday that Dravis, 34, was leaving to pursue other opportunities.
“She has been integral in the agency’s successful implementation of the president’s environmental agenda and the agency wishes her success in her future endeavors,” Bowman said.
Dravis previously worked for a fundraising group founded by Pruitt before being hired at EPA, where she often accompanied the administrator on his frequent trips across the country and oversees.
An EPA employee told the AP on Wednesday that Dravis had not been attending meetings inside the agency in recent weeks and was recently informed she would not be accompanying Pruitt on a planned trip to Portugal. The source was not authorized to publicly discuss personnel matters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
EPA’s press office did not respond Thursday to requests for comment about Dravis’ resignation or Minoli’s letter.
Questions about whether Pruitt will remain in his job have swirled for more than a week, since news first broke about his rental of the condo co-owned by the wife of J. Steven Hart, chairman and CEO of the powerhouse lobbying firm Williams & Jensen.
On Pruitt’s lease, a copy of which was reviewed by AP, Steven Hart’s name was originally typed in as “landlord” but was scratched out. The name of his wife, health care lobbyist Vicki Hart, was scribbled.
Federal disclosure reports show Hart’s firm lobbied EPA, including Pruitt himself, extensively over the past year.
The Associated Press reported last week that while living in the Hart condo he met in his EPA office with a lobbyist from Hart’s firm and two executives from an energy company seeking to scuttle tighter pollution standards for coal-fired power plants.
EPA also granted a favorable ruling to a pipeline company represented by Hart’s firm.
Beyond the question of whether Pruitt paid a fair-market value for the rental, Hart’s business interests potentially raise other ethics issues that Minoli wrote that he did not consider as part of his earlier review of whether the favorable lease constituted an improper gift to Pruitt from the lobbyist.
Ethics rules covering federal officials say they must remain impartial when making regulatory decisions and can’t show favoritism. Pruitt also signed an ethics pledge when joining the Trump administration in which he promised not to accept gifts from lobbyists.
“I think it was very poor judgment for Pruitt to rent a place owned by a lobbyist who describes him as only a casual friend,” said Walter Shaub, who ran the federal Office of Government Ethics before quitting last year after clashing with Trump. “My biggest concern centers on the question of whether he may have met with anyone from the lobbyist’s firm while staying there, which would implicate the impartiality regulation.”
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