EPA chief paid $50 a night for DC condo linked to lobbyist

Posted at 10:25 AM, Mar 30, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency paid just $50 a night to stay in a Capitol Hill condominium linked to a prominent Washington lobbyist whose firm represents fossil fuel companies, officials acknowledged Friday.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt paid for a single bedroom in the building about a block from the U.S. Capitol, staying for about six months in 2017. Three units inside the building belong to a corporation co-owned by the wife of J. Steven Hart, the chairman and CEO of the powerhouse lobbying firm Williams and Jensen PLLC, according to records.

The firm's clients include Exxon Mobil Corp. and the major liquefied natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy Inc. — companies that have billions at stake in regulatory decisions over which Pruitt presides. In at least one case Pruitt met in his EPA office with a lobbyist from Hart's firm while he was renting the room, records showed.

The $50-per-night rate is significantly lower than advertised rates for rentals in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. One-bedroom apartments range between $1,600 and $2,500 a month, depending on amenities. Single rooms listed online for one-night rentals averaged about $120 a night.

It was too soon to know whether Pruitt — who was previously criticized over high travel expenses — will face any consequences or draw the ire of President Donald Trump. White House officials, who expressed frustration by the optics of Pruitt's living arrangements, were reviewing the seriousness of the issue, according to a White House official not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.

An ethics lawyer at EPA, Justina Fugh, told The Associated Press that Pruitt's rental agreement allowed him to pay only for nights he occupied the room, totaling about $6,000 in payments over the term of the lease.

Fugh said she was first briefed by other EPA officials about the terms of lease on Thursday, shortly after ABC News first reported on Pruitt's prior living arrangements. Fugh said she was not asked to review the lease or issue a formal legal opinion on it, though she did not immediately see it as an ethical concern since Pruitt paid for the room.

Fugh said she was told Pruitt has since moved to another apartment, though she said she was not privy to any details about where the administrator is currently staying, who owns that property or what rate he is paying.

As Trump'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.

In December, Pruitt and members of his staff spent about $40,000 in public funds to fly to Morocco to help encourage the import of liquefied natural gas from the United States. Cheniere, the lobbying client of Hart's firm, is currently the only exporter of liquefied natural gas from the continental United States.

In a statement Thursday, Hart said Pruitt is a casual friend from Oklahoma who moved into the building in early 2017. Hart said he had no contact with Pruitt for many months, other than a brief exchange at the National Prayer Breakfast in February. He described the lease as "market-based, short-term" and said Pruitt paid all rent owed as agreed. He said the condo was partly owned by his wife, whom he said has not lobbied the EPA. Hart's wife, Vicki Hart, is a lobbyist focusing on health care issues.

EPA's press office did not respond to questions from the AP on Thursday or Friday, although officials there showed check payments related to the deal to Bloomberg News.

A House oversight committee and the EPA's inspector general are now reviewing Pruitt's travel spending. Jeffrey Lagda, a spokesman for EPA's internal watchdog, said Friday the office has been made aware of allegations over Pruitt's lease.

Pruitt's travels often included weekend-long layovers at his home in Tulsa. The EPA chief is widely mentioned in Oklahoma as a possible successor to Sen. James Inhofe, the Republican senator expected to retire at the end of his term.

Among clients at Hart's lobbying firm is OGE Energy Corp., an electricity company serving Oklahoma and Arkansas. The company paid Williams and Jensen $400,000 in 2017 to lobby on issues that included EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, records showed.

Copies of Pruitt's daily calendar obtained by the AP through a public records request show that Pruitt held a March 2017 meeting in his EPA office with OGE Chairman and CEO Sean Trauschke and company vice president Paul Renfrow. The meeting was arranged at the request of George Baker, a registered lobbyist from Hart's firm, who also attended.

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. EPA has also moved to scrap regulations cutting power plant emissions of such toxic substances as mercury, as well as tighter standards on dumps containing coal ash.

Democrats and environmentalists Friday seized on details of Pruitt's living arrangements to renew calls for his resignation or firing.

"He apparently did not report the details of his arrangement to ethics counsel at the EPA beforehand, nor to the public," said Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on a House oversight subcommittee that oversees EPA. "As he has done over and over again, he showed contempt for transparency, ethical guidelines and the public interest. Pruitt must resign. If he refuses to do so he should be fired immediately."


Associated Press writer Tim Talley contributed from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.


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