Not too many people took then-candidate Donald Trump seriously when he famously campaigned to "drain the swamp" as president. But that shouldn’t give this administration a free pass to excuse the behavior of Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency whose spending, travel, sweet housing arrangement and treatment of his staff reflect all that’s rotten in Washington.
Pruitt has been dogged for weeks by reports of his private housing deal, hiring practices and costly travel at taxpayers’ expense. He leased a bedroom for $50 a night in a Washington apartment owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist. His heavy spending on office furniture and travel, and insistence on tight security and other perks, caused career agency staff and even a Trump appointee to push back. At least four high-ranking EPA officials who raised concerns over his management were later demoted or reassigned, or they asked for new jobs. Officials say agency morale has plummeted as career staff see Pruitt, a climate change skeptic, marginalize the role that scientists play in the agency’s decisionmaking process.
The federal government’s top ethics official was so alarmed by the reports that he wrote to the EPA’s designated ethics officer this month, calling attention to three areas of concern and urging the agency to investigate. Leasing an apartment at below-market rate from the wife of a lobbyist whose clients have business before the EPA could constitute a gift, the government’s top ethics officer, David J. Apol, warned. Pruitt’s expenses for travel and security also raised questions, given his frequent trips "to his home state at government expense," about whether Pruitt was "using his public office for personal gain." And the ethics office cited as "extremely concerning" reports that Pruitt had reassigned or demoted staff who attempted to ensure that the administrator’s actions were legal and proper. "Agency heads in particular bear a heightened responsibility," Apol wrote, to foster an "ethical culture in the agency."
Pruitt reportedly spent tens of thousands of dollars on first-class airfare and charter flights. He reportedly sought a bulletproof SUV, wanted to expand his security detail to three times the size of his predecessor’s and asked his security detail to use lights and sirens when tooling around to speed up the journey. A senior Trump political appointee at EPA reportedly objected at proposals to spend $70,000 on two desks in Pruitt’s office and $100,000 per month on a charter aircraft club membership. That aide was put on administrative leave, the New York Times reported. At least three others were forced out or sidelined to lower-profile jobs. The Government Accountability Office determined that the EPA broke federal laws by installing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in Pruitt’s office.
Pruitt was a terrible pick to protect the nation’s air, water and environmental health. But his anti-environmental agenda aside, his abuses of authority are a betrayal of public trust and an embarrassment even to this White House. The bubble of secrecy he has created and his tin ear to ethics has made him a poster boy of the swamp Trump promised to drain. The ethics office was right to suggest this case is tailor-made for an investigation by EPA’s inspector general. But it also calls out for the president to set at least a minimum standard of conduct for his Cabinet. That was his promise, after all, and Pruitt is his man.