Scott Pruitt's "housing problem"

Those sleuths at the Washington Post (among other outlets) have been hard at work, sniffing out corruption and wrongdoing inside the Trump administration. What are they on the trail of this time? Election rigging? Bribery? Something new with the Russians? Nope. The WaPo is raising a considerable fuss over EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s “unusual housing arrangement” during his first months in Washington after joining Trump’s cabinet.

So what’s unusual about it? Apparently, while looking for a long term lease arrangement, Pruitt rented a room from friends of his who failed to charge him enough money. And no… I’m not even kidding. (WaPo)

Scott Pruitt’s unusual housing arrangement during much of last year — when he paid a lobbyist a modest sum each night for staying in a Capitol Hill condo she co-owned — has generated a new round of scrutiny about the financial decisions of the Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

Pruitt paid $50 for each night that he physically stayed in the condo, which sits a stone’s throw from the Capitol and is co-owned by health-care lobbyist Vicki Hart. According to individuals familiar with the arrangement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, Pruitt initially approached her husband, lawyer J. Steven Hart, about staying there during his confirmation process in 2017 and then extended the terms of the arrangement through last July.

Collectively, according to EPA officials, Pruitt paid $6,100 to stay in the condo for roughly six months. Details of the arrangement initially were reported by ABC News and Bloomberg.

The condo in question is owned by fellow Oklahoman J. Steven Hart and his wife Vicki (apparently in the wife’s name). Pruitt was renting a room there (in a place which doesn’t even include a full kitchen), though others are claiming he “had access to” the entire apartment. The WaPo goes on at length to talk about what the normal rental prices are in the district and how much cheaper this deal was. You can’t argue with that. Your average room goes for more than 100 bucks a night and Pruitt got his from his friends for 50. But even the EPA Senior Counsel for Ethics has already stated that they saw “no conflict of interest” in the short-term arrangement. A discounted rate may qualify as a “gift” but cabinet members are allowed to accept gifts from friends.

The fact that the Harts are lobbyists is clearly problematic from an optics perspective and if you want to question whether that was the best choice in political terms, feel free to speculate away. But Vicki Hart works in healthcare and there’s no indication she’s ever lobbied the EPA for anything. Her husband works for energy interests but has gone on record saying he’s not lobbied the EPA for anything in 2017 or 2018.

Here’s the real irony. We have heard for months that Pruitt was spending too much money on security and travel. Now he failed to spend enough on his apartment rental during his first six months in D.C. Since everyone seems to be trafficking in speculation and innuendo these days, allow me to offer a different take. This looks like yet another case of scalp-hunting on the part of the media. If they can manufacture enough “scandals” around any of Trump’s cabinet members or advisers, it might result in calls to remove them. Then we’re treated to the next round of breathless media coverage about how the Trump White House is “in chaos” and can’t keep any people on staff.

Here’s one question for the reporters at the WaPo, the New York Times and all the rest. Did you exercise this much effort in placing the rental accommodations of Barack Obama’s newly arriving staff members under scrutiny in 2009? Surely they all had to find places to live when they arrived as well. Did anyone even think to ask? Pruitt was only renting a room at the Harts’ condo until July and since then has taken up leases on two different apartments which rent for more than three to four thousand dollars per month.

Huh. I wonder if the next story will be that his new digs are too expensive and extravagant.

UPDATE: The following information was released in relation to this story.

As EPA career ethics officials stated in a memo, Administrator Pruitt’s housing arrangement for both himself and family was not a gift and the lease was consistent with federal ethics regulations.” – EPA spokesman, Jahan Wilcox

I don’t conclude that this is a prohibited gift at all. It was a routine business transaction and permissible even if from a personal friend.” – EPA Career Senior Counsel for Ethics, Justina Fugh (03/29/18)