WASHINGTON - The internal watchdog at the Environmental Protection Agency has closed two probes into the conduct of former Administrator Scott Pruitt as inconclusive because investigators were unable to interview him before he resigned.
EPA Acting Inspector General Charles Sheehan said in a report sent to Congress this week that Pruitt's departure left his investigators unable to complete reviews into Pruitt's bargain-rate rental of Capitol Hill condo from the wife of an industry lobbyist and efforts by Pruitt's government staff to pursue business opportunities for his wife, including seeking a Chick-fil-A fast-food franchise.
Pruitt, an Oklahoma Republican and staunch fossil fuels advocate, was forced to resign in July following a string of ethics scandals. President Donald Trump has indicated he would nominate Pruitt's former deputy, ex-coal industry lobbyist and Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, to serve as his permanent replacement.
"Mr. Pruitt resigned prior to being interviewed by investigators,'' Sheehan said in his office's semiannual report to Congress. "For that reason, the OIG deemed that the result of the investigation was inconclusive. The case will be closed.'' OIG stands for office of the inspector general.
Corruption allegations have swirled around Pruitt since March, when media reports revealed that the-then EPA chief had rented a luxury Capitol Hill condo for just $50 a night from a company co-owned by the wife of J. Steven Hart, then-chairman of the powerhouse Washington lobbying firm Williams & Jensen.
Change on condo lease
Pruitt's daughter, then a White House summer intern, stayed in a second bedroom at the condo at no additional cost. On Pruitt's 2017 condo lease, a copy of which was reviewed by The Associated Press, Steven Hart's name was originally typed in as "landlord'' but was scratched out. The name of his wife, health care lobbyist Vicki Hart, was scribbled in.
Both Hart and Pruitt issued public denials that the lobbyist had sought to influence EPA policies on behalf of his clients. But internal emails, calendars and retroactive lobbying disclosure reports filed following an internal review by Hart's firm showed that Pruitt had met with Hart in his office at EPA headquarters and the lobbyist had reached out to Pruitt's chief of staff to suggest favored candidates for key appointments.
In the report to Congress, Sheehan also disclosed his office sought to determine whether "unknown EPA employee(s) allegedly accessed and disclosed, without authorization, the EPA Administrator's official EPA travel records regarding a trip abroad.''
That's a possible reference to Pruitt's December 2017 trip to Morocco to help promote U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas to the North African kingdom. The Associated Press was the first to report the trip and that it had cost taxpayers at least $40,000, citing an unnamed EPA employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns of retaliation.
The IG's report says investigators interviewed employees believed to have access to the administrator's travel records and all denied leaking the information.
Sheehan also wrote that investigators found no support for allegations leveled against a senior EPA manager. Democratic lawmakers had asked the IG's office to probe reports that Pruitt's top policy aide, Samantha Dravis, received pay for months she didn't show up for work. Sheehan said investigators reviewed records and interviewed witnesses who said Dravis was often at EPA headquarters and attended meetings during the time frame in question.
Dravis, considered to have been among Pruitt's closest political aides, resigned from EPA in April.
Supporting legal opinions
Sheehan said investigators also found no evidence to support allegations that career EPA ethics lawyers were improperly influenced by GOP political appointees to issue legal opinions supporting Pruitt's condo lease. After initially issuing statements saying Pruitt's lease didn't violate ethics rules, EPA lawyers later said they weren't told key details about the unusual arrangement by Pruitt's staff.
"Investigators interviewed potential victims, who stated that they did not feel pressured into rendering opinions pertaining to the lodging agreement,'' wrote Sheehan, a career EPA lawyer serving as the office's acting director since the resignation of longtime Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins in October.
Six Democratic lawmakers with oversight of EPA asked FBI Director Chris Wray earlier this year to investigate whether Pruitt repeatedly violated federal anti-corruption laws by seeking to leverage his government position for personal gain. There has been no public indication that the Justice Department is pursuing a criminal case against the former EPA chief.
Congressional Democrats may seek to hold hearings on Pruitt's conduct after they gain control of the House in January, giving them the authority to issue subpoenas.
"I look forward to House Democrats holding the administration accountable for its management failures and backwards policies which fail to adequately address climate change and undermine the protection of human health and the environment,'' said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Pruitt was forced out by the White House last summer following a series of revelations involving pricey trips with first-class airline seats and unusual security spending, including a $43,000 soundproof booth for making private phone calls.
Large security detail
Pruitt sought and received unprecedented 24-hour-a-day protection from armed officers, resulting in a swollen 20-member security detail that blew through overtime budgets and racked up expenses of more than $3 million. An audit of Pruitt's Protective Service Detail released earlier this year found that the agency had no approved standard operating procedures to address the level of protection required or how those services are provided.
Pruitt also routinely ordered his EPA staff to do personal chores for him, including picking up his dry cleaning and trying to obtain a used Trump hotel mattress for his apartment. He had also enlisted his staff to contact conservative groups and companies as part of a concerted effort to find a six-figure job for his unemployed spouse.