Ethics and Integrity at US EPA – and Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Violations of Norms

Ethics and Integrity at US EPA – and Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Violations of Norms

By  Kerrigan Clough, former Senior Ethics Officer, & Deputy Regional Administrator, EPA Region 8  &
Joni Teter, former Deputy Ethics Officer & Senior Enforcement Attorney, EPA Region 8

William D. Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first and fourth Administrator set the standard for EPA employees’ ethical behavior.  Shortly after taking office on December 4, 1970, two days after the Agency was created by President Nixon, g Ruckelshaus explained to the small cadre of employees that ethical behavior and integrity in carrying out this new mission could be simplified into a statement on a roadside billboard: 

“If you can’t have what you are doing, or saying, or even thinking on roadside billboards – then you shouldn’t be doing it, saying it or even thinking it.” 1

EPA ethics officials like us generally have a pretty easy job, even though ethics is only a small part of our normal duties.  Employees at all levels in EPA are given training to make sure we know what we can and cannot do under ethics laws and codes.  EPA staff recognize the importance of  ethical rules in maintaining public trust. Virtually every person working at EPA throughout the agency’s history has conducted themselves above the baseline ethical standards.  When staff has a question about accepting gifts, traveling above coach level, meeting with regulated entities (and the myriad other circumstances that can raise issues that aren’t written down), they know to ask the ethics officials FIRST before they do, say or even think about acting in ways that give even the appearance of unethical behavior.

The behavior of current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, is far outside  Ruckelshaus’s guiding vision for this Agency – and far outside the norms of behavior for EPA staff.   An executive exhibiting behavior like Pruitt’s in our Region would have been counseled, disciplined, and – by now – be on his way out the door.

Scott Pruitt’s Ethical Swamp

Pruitt is under scrutiny for wasting taxpayer money and for multiple ethical violations.  We’ll focus on only three, offering the same kind of analysis we provided when we were EPA ethics officials.

1) Accepting gifts of monetary value from regulated entities

    •   Pruitt is now under investigation for accepting gifts in the form of lodging in an upmarket DC neighborhood.  He rented one room (in a multi-room condominium) for $50/night, with rent due only for those nights he was in town. The lessors are a lobbyist couple, one of whom works on behalf of corporations regulated by EPA.

The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees (at any level) of the Executive Branch have been in place for decades and are updated from time to time (most recently on January 1, 2017).  These standards start from a simple premise:

Public service is a public trust…requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain.

Pruitt’s condo deal seems, on its face, to violate four of the Standards of Conduct’s core principles:2

Section 4:  Don’t accept gifts of items of monetary value from entities regulated by your agency

Section 8:  Be impartial toward private organizations

Section 7: Employees shall not use public office for private gain.

Section 14:  Avoid actions creating an appearance of violating ethical standards from the perspective of a reasonable person

Pruitt paid about $1,000/month for lodging in a neighborhood where the market rate ranges from $2,550 to $4,300/month.  The fact that he only paid for nights when he was in residence – even though it was available to him every night – raises the specter of a sweetheart deal.  (Does a hotel keep a room empty for a guest and only charge for the nights in residence?) Pruitt clearly reaped private and personal gain from this unusual arrangement.

Pruitt accepted his condo deal from a lobbyist that had regulatory business before EPA at the time that Pruitt was occupying the apartment.  Pruitt’s landlord, J. Steven Hart,3 is the chairman of Williams & Jensen, a firm with a stable of energy industry clients, including Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co. (which paid Hart’s firm $400,000 in 2017). Mr. Pruitt has met with Oklahoma Gas & Electric multiple times since taking the reins at EPA, according to data compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project (from FOIA requests and disclosure forms).

Hart’s individual lobbying clients include liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter Cheniere Energy Inc.  Pruitt took a trip to Morocco (at a taxpayer cost of $40,000) to promote liquefied natural gas – a product directly related to the interests of his lobbyist landlord’s client. 

And why was an EPA  Administrator traveling overseas to build a market for  LNG?  The Department of Energy – not the EPA – plays the major federal role overseeing LNG exports.  The “travel justification” for this Morocco trip alone would raise major red flags in a a normal ethics review.

When making ethics’ determinations, Ethics Officials are dependent on the employee to provide all potentially pertinent information.  News reports unfolding over the last week have revealed a host of issues that Pruitt should have revealed to the EPA ethics office about both his condo deal and his trip to Morocco: that Pruitt’s landlord is a lobbyist, that the lobbyist represents companies that have business before EPA, and that Pruitt’s daughter also used the condo without paying additional rent. Failure to fully divulge such pertinent facts is a violation of the ethics standards and grounds for disciplinary action – including removal from office.

2) Wasting taxpayer dollars on luxury travel

    • Pruitt travels a lot – and he likes to travel first class or (even more expensively) by private jets or military planes.  Pruitt’s luxury travel costs are approaching $200,000 – and that’s only what’s been disclosed to date.  On one international junket, Pruitt flew first class on Arab Emirates, a non-US carrier described as having “one the most luxurious business class cabins in the business.”

By law, federal employees fly coach.4  The General Services Administration (GSA) is charged with ensuring that federal employees use taxpayer dollars wisely when on “official travel.” GSA negotiates government-wide contracts with airlines and hotels, establishing rates for airfare and lodging that all federal employees are required to use.  An employee who incurs costs above government rates is subject to disciplinary action – and would be required to pay the difference from their own pocket.

Federal regulations also require that federal employees travel on American-owned airlines.  Pruitt’s first class flight on Arab Emirates (a Mid-East carrier) is a double violation.

Only “exceptional circumstances” allow federal employees to make travel arrangements outside GSA’s established, government-wide contracts. Pruitt’s stated “exceptional circumstance” is that he doesn’t like having other commercial passengers say bad things to him about how he is pillaging our environmental laws – another justification that doesn’t pass the laugh test. Americans hold strong values about public health and environmental protection, and EPA’s work is always at the center of controversy.  EPA employees get used to being regularly loved and hated – or they find another job.

3) Wasting taxpayer dollars on office furnishings (and personal paranoia)

    • Pruitt spent $43,000 on a secure phone booth for his office when one is available in the building a few minutes’ walk away. He spent $8000 to sweep his office for listening bugs and install locks keyed to his fingerprints.  What is he trying to hide?  Inappropriate conversations with regulated companies?  Other ethical violations?
    • He tried to spend $70,000 to furnish his office with two desks – one of which would be bulletproof.  The bulletproof desk was dropped after acquisition staff objected, so  Pruitt bought two fancy desks instead: a handcrafted maple desk (cost undisclosed) and an oversize desk with decorative woodworking like the Oval Office desk (refurbished at a cost of $2,075).
    • Pruitt has required a round the clock, 7 days a week, multiple-person security detail to protect him at a cost (to date) of $3 million in travel and payroll costs.

Purchases made with taxpayer dollars are governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulations, which require that all government purchases be “fair and reasonable.”  The General Services Administration (GSA) negotiates volume discounts for millions of commercial products and services that agencies use – including executive office furniture.  Goods and services are required to meet GSA pricing; variances are approved in only the most extraordinary circumstances. Pruitt’s desire to have a desk like the President’s is not an extraordinary circumstance.

Federal managers and executives are required to oversee federal spending, and held accountable for waste. Some EPA executives have  challenged Pruitt’s spending – and Pruitt has had them demoted or re-assigned.

Pruitt’s spending on “security” is laughable. The EPA Administrator’s suite is located on a secure floor within a secured building – there is no realistic physical threat. Pruitt’s security detail is 3 times the size of his predecessors, none of whom had round the clock protection.  (Why in the world would an EPA Administrator need 19 agents and a fleet of at least 19 vehicles?) Some members of Pruitt’s security detail are EPA special agents who should be spending their time investigating environmental crimes – not holding Pruitt’s hand at Disneyland and football games.

It’s worth noting that Pruitt also tried to buy a bullet-proof car and “run hot” (use sirens and lights) when traveling across town on routine business. Pruitt’s obsession with security seems more about his sense of self-importance than any real threat.

Will Pruitt be Held Accountable?

On taking office, President Trump required that every appointee in his Administration, including  Pruitt, sign a pledge:

“I will not accept gifts from registered lobbyists or lobbying organizations for the duration of my service as an appointee.”   Pruitt signed that pledge. 

Will  Trump enforce his requirement?

We’ve scratched our heads over Pruitt’s behavior. What possible reasons could Pruitt give for his highly unethical conduct? We’ve come up with three:

    1. Pruitt was/is IGNORANT of the requirements,
    2. Pruitt was/is STUPID and did not think all these ethical breaches would get out, or
    3. Pruitt was/is ARROGANT and doesn’t believe these high-and-lofty goals of conduct apply to him. 

1) IGNORANT?  Well,  Pruitt is an attorney and it would be pretty hard for him to face the Bar in Oklahoma and plead that he didn’t know about these ethical standards.  Further, he signed President Trump’s Pledge.  We have learned that the Trump Administration didn’t conduct mandatory ethics training for incoming appointees, so Pruitt could blame his boss, the President, for his ignorance. (That would go down well.)

2) STUPID?   Pruitt could plead “I’m just a country boy from Oklahoma (born in Kentucky) and I don’t know about these city things.”  But, that would be an insult to his birth and home states.  And, it would provide ammunition for his opponents in the environmental organizations that are fighting his environmental protection rollbacks – “You see Judge, Scott Pruitt has admitted he is too stupid to understand his rollback decisions.” (This one could be kind of fun.)

3) ARROGANT?  Okay, we are down to this.  Perhaps  Pruitt’s decision to raise the pay of 2 assistants he brought from Oklahoma despite the White House telling him not to indicates his arrogance.  Maybe his insistence to his security detail drivers to “use the flashers and sirens” to get him through Washington traffic for his dinner appointment kind of says “I’m really important and I can break any rules I feel like.” But, then there is his boss, the President, who sets the standards for the Administration by going to a Presidential private residence every week-end, at millions of dollars of taxpayer expense – why not? 

So, we guess we can’t even pin  Pruitt with arrogance, since he’s just following his boss’s lead.

EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus’ Legacy

Bill Ruckelshaus said:

At EPA, you work for a cause that is beyond self-interest and larger than the goals people normally pursue.  You’re not there for the money, you’re there for something beyond yourself.

Ruckelshaus was named one of the 10 all-time best White House Cabinet Members by Time Magazine.  Ruckelshaus received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. 

How will Pruitt be remembered?

Endnotes

1. § 2635.101 (a) and (b)(1) Basic obligation of public service.

2. The Department of Justice summarizes employee’s ethical duties in 14 principles. DOJ’s summary is paraphrased in this discussion.

3.   Steven Hart originally claimed that his wife was the owner, and that he had no ownership interest, However, Pruitt’s lease shows Steven Hart’s name as lessor, then crossed out and replaced with the name of Hart’s wife. https://thinkprogress.org/pruitt-condo-story-falls-apart-005b1d8cfe01/

4. Travel is governed by the Federal Travel Regulations.

***

P.S. A bit of personal musing from Kerrigan (Kerry) Clough, EPA 1971-2008

I didn’t start at EPA until September 1971, so I missed hearing Administrator Ruckelshaus speak about the Billboard Ethics of his new Agency.  But, I did hear the story from many employees that were there in the beginning.  I was fortunate to get assigned to Administrator Russell Train’s personal staff in 1974 as a Special Assistant.  Administrator Train was the second EPA Administrator.  I handled lots of stuff, policy paper reviews, weekly reports, and some advance work/travel with Administrator Train.  I was held on with the incoming Carter Administration and worked for 4 years for Administrator Costle as would-be-called-today the Deputy Chief of Staff.  I was privy to everything during those Train/Costle 6 ½ years and never once saw anything but absolute ethical conduct by those Administrators.  For example, Administrator Train had a constant back problem causing him great pain but he didn’t take first-class air travel even though he could have been qualified to do so, and he didn’t have a driver except when the US Marshall’s said he needed one.  Administrator Costle drove himself to work and to the airport. 

The first Administrator during the Reagan Administration from 1981-83, Anne Gorsuch/Burford, and many of her appointees did have ethical issues.  Those are a matter of public record.

I again was fortunate to have close enough, although not personal staff level contact, with EPA Administrators in the later parts of the Reagan, and all of the GHW Bush, Clinton, and GW Bush Administrations in my various Senior Executive Service roles and never did I see, hear, or expect anything but the highest ethical or integrity conduct amongst those EPA Administrators:  William Ruckelshaus (his second time as EPA Administrator), Lee Thomas, William Reilly, Carol Browner, Christie Todd Whitman (Former Governor New Jersey), Mike Leavitt (Former Governor Utah), and Steve Johnson.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: