The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general is investigating Administrator Scott Pruitt’s $50-a-night condo lease — a development accompanied by the departure of one of his top aides, the erosion of one of his key defenses, a troubled Fox News interview and growing concern in the White House about his cascade of ethical problems.
The investigation, confirmed by an EPA inspector general spokesman on Thursday, is at least the fourth IG inquiry into Pruitt, whose aggressive championing of President Donald Trump's deregulatory agenda has been accompanied by questions about his travel spending, secretive habits and closeness with industries that EPA regulates.
The IG is also investigating Pruitt's taxpayer-funded travel, his use of a special hiring authority, and his spending on a soundproof phone booth for his office.
Separately, one of Pruitt's top political appointees, Samantha Dravis, submitted her resignation early last week, a source familiar with her plans told POLITICO. Dravis was senior counsel and associate administrator of EPA's Office of Policy, a role that allowed her to accompany Pruitt on international travel, including a trip to Morocco in December where Pruitt touted American natural gas and time in Italy for G-7 environment meetings in June.
People close to the situation said Dravis had been planning to leave for some time, and that her decision is not because of a series of recent negative headlines for Pruitt. Those include the news that he had rented a Capitol Hill condo for $50 a night from the wife of an energy lobbyist for several months last year, as well as raises that EPA had secured for two of Pruitt's political aides using a provision of a drinking water law.
Dravis, who previously was policy director and general counsel of the Republican Attorneys General Association, will pursue opportunities in the private sector. Her growing responsibilities at EPA had included leading EPA’s regulatory reform efforts and the offices for environmental reviews and environmental justice.
Pruitt has tried to defend himself in a series of interviews with conservative media outlets this week, including an often contentious sitdown Wednesday with Fox News' Ed Henry, who expressed skepticism that the administrator wouldn't know details about the employees' raises, which the White House had reportedly tried to block.
Meanwhile, an EPA ethics official late Wednesday undermined one of Pruitt's defenses about the condo rental by declining to vouch for the legitimacy of every aspect of the deal.
The ethics official, Kevin Minoli, had said in a previous memo that the lease as written did not violate federal gift rules — a line of defense that Pruitt and his supporters have pointed to since then. But in a second memo late Wednesday, Minoli said he did not have access to all information about other aspects of the lease and couldn't say whether they complied with all federal rules.
"Some have raised questions whether the actual use of the space was consistent with the terms of the lease," he wrote. "Evaluating those questions would have required factual information that was not before us and the Review does not address those questions."
The second memo followed news reports that Pruitt's daughter and other family members may have stayed with Pruitt and had the run of the whole condo, not just the room he was renting.
Minoli also said he had not considered Pruitt’s housing situation in the context of a federal impartiality rule, which the Office of Government Ethics says “requires an employee to consider appearance concerns before participating in a particular matter if someone close to the employee is involved as a party to that matter.”
Minoli still maintained that the $50-per-night rate was within the bounds of rules regarding gifts based on the rental rates of other nearby units.
The White House, meanwhile, has recently only offered tepid support for Pruitt and expressed concern about the ethics scandals.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — asked on Wednesday why Trump is "OK" with the leader of the EPA renting a condo from a lobbyist for $50 a night — responded that "the president’s not."
"We’re reviewing the situation," she said, adding: “The president thinks that he’s done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front. But again, we take this seriously and we’re looking into it and we'll let you know when we finish."