WASHINGTON – Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned Thursday, ending a tenure marked by allegations of misconduct that led to repeated calls for his ouster.
Pruitt, a former Oklahoma state attorney general, was accused of spending extravagantly on travel and security, asking aides to run personal errands and accepting favorable terms for the rental of a condo owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist.
A government watchdog agency concluded this year that the installation of a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth for Pruitt violated congressional appropriations law.
Pruitt worked aggressively to roll back environmental regulations that President Donald Trump and his allies viewed as burdensome to businesses. That won him praise from the president, who stood by his embattled EPA chief for months.
“Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this,” Trump wrote on Twitter as he announced Pruitt’s resignation.
Trump said Pruitt’s deputy, Andrew Wheeler, would replace him.
During Pruitt’s 14 months at the EPA, he began rolling back the Clean Power Plan targeting carbon emissions from energy plants and delayed implementation of the Waters of the U.S. rule aimed at improving water quality.
He announced the agency would undo the Obama administration’s reduction in auto emissions for cars and light trucks set in motion in 2012 as part of a campaign to reduce greenhouse gas levels that contribute to climate change.
In his resignation letter, Pruitt effusively praised Trump, saying he considered it “a blessing to be serving you in any capacity.” Pruitt said the “unrelenting attacks” took a toll on him and his family.
Democrats hailed Pruitt’s departure but expressed concern about environmental stewardship under a Trump administration.
“Took you long enough,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted. “Still a very long way to go to fully #DrainTheSwamp.”
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the ranking member on the House Energy Commerce Committee, said Pruitt’s resignation was “long overdue.”
“He repeatedly violated the law, abused his position to enrich himself and wasted taxpayer money,” Pallone said. “Pruitt created a culture of corruption at EPA that has never been seen before in a federal agency, and for months, President Trump idly stood by and allowed him to do further harm.”
Pruitt and his allies, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, claimed he was the target of a left-wing conspiracy because of his efforts to dismantle Obama-era rules.
In a follow-up tweet after Pruitt resigned, Trump said his new environmental administrator, Wheeler, “will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda.”
Later, while traveling to Montana, Trump said there was “no final straw” for Pruitt, and the resignation was “very much up to him.”
“I think Scott felt that he was a distraction,” Trump said.
The president’s endorsement didn’t stop some Republicans in Congress from joining the Pruitt-must-go chorus of about 170 Democrats. He faces more than a dozen federal investigations examining his conduct and ethics.
Pruitt’s departure sets up a potentially bruising confirmation battle in the Senate with whomever Trump nominates as the next EPA administrator.
Long list of ethical concerns
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who is unhappy with Pruitt’s moves to reduce ethanol consumption that is economically important to Midwestern states, said the EPA administrator was “as swampy as you can get.”
Among the ethical challenges and criticisms:
•Aides running errands: A top assistant to Pruitt conducted personal errands for her boss last year, including booking personal flights, hunting for homes and inquiring about the availability of a used mattress from Trump International Hotel.
The errands performed by aide Millan Hupp were revealed as part of testimony she provided in May to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
•Huge raises for aides: As scrutiny mounted over his first-class flights, top aides received huge pay raises after the White House rejected them.
Pruitt paid $50 a night to rent a room on Capitol Hill in an apartment owned by health care lobbyist Vicki Hart, who is married to energy lobbyist J. Steven Hart. He used it beginning in February 2017 when he became EPA administrator and paid only on the nights he stayed until he moved out in July of that year.
The EPA’s senior ethics official, Kevin Minoli, reviewed the lease – months after he had vacated the apartment – and deemed that the arrangement did not violate agency rules. That was not enough for the White House, which launched its own investigation.
Pruitt went on Fox News to defend the arrangement, which he said was similar to an “Airbnb situation” in which lodgers pay only for the nights they stay, and countering the criticism that renting from an energy lobbyist was a potential conflict.
•Alleged request to fire Sessions: CNN reported that Pruitt asked the president to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appoint him to run the Justice Department, according to a report by CNN.
He made the request during an Oval Office meeting with Trump in spring, CNN reported, citing three anonymous sources. Advisers shot down the idea, but Trump has floated the option as recently as April.
•Secret calendar: A former staffer said Pruitt’s office scrubbed meetings from his official calendar.
Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, told CNN that Pruitt kept secret calendars and schedules that included meetings with executives and one in 2017 with Cardinal George Pell, who later was charged with sexual assault.
“We had at one point three different schedules. One of them was one that no one else saw except three or four of us,” Chmielewski told CNN.
Deleting records and hiding official documents could be a violation of federal laws.
Pruitt faced increasing public criticism and ethics reviews as expenses over security measures, first-class flights and a sound-proof communication system came to light.
The Atlantic reported the EPA chief bypassed the White House to give large raises to favored aides who had come with him from Oklahoma, where he was attorney general.
Despite the drumbeat of unfavorable publicity concerning Pruitt’s personal conduct, Trump appreciated the job the EPA did taking apart environmental regulations. During a speech March 29 in Ohio to tout his infrastructure initiative, the president praised the agency for moving to speed up environmental reviews of large projects.
“We’ve really streamlined the system, where we have really made it possible for people to get things done,” Trump told a crowd of union laborers in Richfield, Ohio. “So many projects are under construction right now that would never, ever in a million years have gotten built.”
Picked to reshape EPA
When Trump picked Pruitt, he wanted someone who would not only dismantle Obama-era environmental initiatives but reshape the culture of an agency hard-line Republicans have long slammed as a political instrument to carry out a leftist agenda that impedes economic growth.
As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the agency 14 times on behalf of the state, challenging a variety of regulations and billing himself as “a leading activist against EPA’s activist agenda.”
A month after he took the helm in February 2017, the budget released by Trump, an ardent EPA critic himself, proposed gutting the $8.2 billion agency by nearly a third. Congress restored most of the cuts.
Pruitt was opposed loudly by hundreds of former EPA employees and more quietly by some current ones. They feared he would assist the petrochemical industry he grew close to in Oklahoma while ignoring the science that served as the foundation of many public health protections.
Subsequent cuts in enforcement of pollution limits and the departure of hundreds of veteran EPA staffers through a buyout program gave environmental groups more reason to worry.
The agency did away with the “sue-and-settle” approach that Pruitt said improperly allowed the Obama administration to circumvent laws by rewriting regulations behind closed doors with friendly environmental groups who filed lawsuits.
The agency rewrote membership rules for the agency’s advisory boards, so industry advocates and academics from Midwestern and mountain states – which Pruitt said were underrepresented – have greater influence when counseling agency leaders on new rules.