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Washington, DC, May 30, 2018 — Attempts to raise private donations by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt violate criminal conflict of interest laws and federal ethics rules, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Earlier this month, Pruitt testified before a Senate subcommittee that he has created a “legal defense fund” even though he is not yet personally facing any civil suits or criminal charges.
Pruitt made this revelation in May 16, 2018 testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. At that time, he promised not to accept donations from lobbyists or entities with business before EPA, but offered few other details about this account. He further indicated the identity of donors would eventually be made public but only “pursuant to the requirements of disclosures.”
In its complaint to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Office of Government Ethics, PEER lays out serious ethical, as well as potentially criminal, implications of Pruitt soliciting private contributions. The biggest concern is that Pruitt appears to be accepting outside compensation for doing his job – a violation of the criminal conflict of interest prohibition against a government official having two paymasters.
“Responding to congressional and other official inquiries is part of Scott Pruitt’s day job and he is not supposed to accept gifts for doing that job,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that asking for or receiving illegal gifts carries penalties of imprisonment and stiff civil fines. “By launching a private legal defense fund, Pruitt may have created a need for it.”
Federal ethics rules ban gifts from anyone who “has interests which may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of his official duty.” Given the scope of the EPA Administrator’s duties and that Pruitt, by his own count, has initiated some 66 “deregulatory actions” involving virtually every major environmental law, donations from a vast swath of American corporations and all their employees, shareholders, contractors, and other connected individuals should also be disallowed.
Pruitt has declined to say how gifts will be screened. That secrecy, the PEER complaint contends, breaks federal ethics rules against creating the appearance of impropriety. Pruitt compounds this appearance by masking how the fund operates, to whom and for what the money goes, and otherwise “proceeding in a manner seemingly calculated to give the appearance of taking untoward gifts.” Those concerns are echoed in recent letters from Democrat House and Senate members who also cite Pruitt’s record of intervening to benefit campaign contributors when he was Oklahoma Attorney General.
“Scott Pruitt has a Midas touch for spawning scandal and his new tip jar suggests he does not know how to stop,” added Ruch, noting that while Pruitt is the subject of more than a dozen complaints, virtually every presidential appointee faces official inquiries but nobody else has created a legal defense fund. “Allowing this Pruitt slush fund signals that the entire Trump cabinet can do the same thing, making our Capitol a far more ethically swampy place than it has ever been.”