Scott Pruitt was only supposed to be living in the Capitol Hill condominium that has become a focal point of his latest ethics controversy for six weeks last year, while he got settled in Washington.
But the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator didn’t leave when his lease ended, instead asking the lobbyist couple who became his disgruntled landlords to revise his lease several times, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
The couple, Vicki and Steve Hart, became so frustrated by their lingering tenant that they eventually pushed him out and changed their locks. After trying to nudge Pruitt out of their home over the course of several months, the Harts finally told Pruitt in July that they had plans to rent his room to another tenant.
“The original arrangement was that he would be there living out of a suitcase … and it just kept going and going,” said one of the people with knowledge of the arrangement.
The condo, in which Pruitt rented a bedroom for $50 a night, has attracted the attention of the EPA’s inspector general, which said Thursday it was considering opening an investigation, alongside already-existing reviews of Pruitt’s taxpayer-funded first-class travel, his use of a special hiring authority to grant raises to aides and his spending on a soundproof phone booth for his office.
The president has dismissed two Cabinet secretaries in recent weeks – his former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and his former secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin – as well as a senior White House adviser, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, making Pruitt the latest in a series of top Trump officials who now risks losing his job.
The president denied in a tweet Friday that he had plans to get rid of him: “Do you believe that the Fake News Media is pushing hard on a story that I am going to replace A.G. Jeff Sessions with EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, who is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege? Do people really believe this stuff? So much of the media is dishonest and corrupt!”
The former Oklahoma attorney general, who has played an integral role in Trump’s efforts to slash federal regulations, is a favorite of some of Trump’s conservative backers, who have encouraged the president to keep him, while chief of staff John Kelly has encouraged Trump to let him go.
Pruitt has been the target of a number of damaging media reports this week, including one Thursday from The New York Times that detailed how at least five EPA officials were pushed out of their jobs or resigned after questioning the EPA chief's expensive spending habits.
Both people familiar with the condo arrangement described Pruitt as a difficult tenant who, intoxicated by his newfound power, paid little attention to the headaches he was causing others.
Prior to Pruitt’s arrival in Washington, Steve Hart — an energy lobbyist who, like Pruitt, is a native Oklahoman — had been a friend and supporter of the EPA administrator’s. He and his wife, a health care lobbyist, viewed the six-week living arrangement as a favor to a friend.
They drew up a lease running from February through April of 2017, said the people familiar, in order to make sure neither they nor Pruitt ran afoul of ethics rules, which prohibit political appointees from accepting gifts from lobbyists. Under the terms of that lease, Pruitt paid a cut-rate of $50 per night to live in the Hart’s condominium.
That favor turned into a headache for the couple when Pruitt repeatedly asked to extend his lease and the couple began to wonder if he would ever leave. “There were gentle questions regarding, ok, when are you going to leave and what have you...and they even started sending him ads of places close by that he could rent,” said the first person.
“Scott Pruitt is the Kato Kaelin of Capitol Hill. He is the long-term houseguest who takes advantage of his hosts and refuses to take a hint about when it’s time to leave,” the second person said.
A spokesman for Pruitt did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The Harts eventually told Pruitt, who had to be reminded repeatedly to pay his rent, that they had plans to rent the room to somebody else — and that he needed to find another place to live, according to the people familiar with events. They also informed him in early August that they were changing the locks on their door.