This post has been updated.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has incurred increased scrutiny as details emerge over reports that he used a provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act to significantly raise the pay of two aides after the White House initially dismissed the requested raise, in addition to ethical questions surrounding a D.C. condo he rented from the wife of an energy lobbyist.
Pruitt’s aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, would normally require White House approval for salary changes, the Atlantic originally reported, but Pruitt exploited a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act that allows the EPA administrator to hire up to 30 people without outside approval. As a result, Greenwalt and Hupp saw a nearly $57,000 and $28,000 pay raise, respectively,
The Safe Drinking Water Act’s provision is normally used to quickly hire expert employees for custom-made roles where the agency desperately needs more support. By reappointing his aides under that provision, Pruitt was able to have full authority over how much they were paid.
Sources told the Atlantic that the move constituted Pruitt playing favorites among the agency’s staff.
When the news about the pay raises broke, Pruitt denied any knowledge of them. However, according to the law, the authority to hire personnel without outside approval is granted only to the administrator of the agency.
Pruitt is also under scrutiny for renting a Capitol Hill condominium from the wife of a top energy lobbyist, for travel with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin involving costly military aircraft, and for the pricey installation of a soundproof booth in his office.
In fact, Hupp reportedly led an effort to help Pruitt and his wife shop for housing, according to reports by the Washington Post.
EPA ethics lawyer Kevin Minoli originally issued an opinion last week concluding that the condo rental was not in violation of agency ethics rules, as Pruitt was paying fair market value for the space: $50 a night for one bedroom.
But the same lawyer issued a memo Wednesday, obtained by the Campaign Legal Center, stating that Pruitt had not provided him with all the facts about the lease, as Pruitt’s college-age daughter was living in a second bedroom of the condo while interning at the White House that summer, according to the Associated Press. The price Pruitt paid therefore constituted less than a third of what nearby two-bedroom apartments cost.
The aides’ pay changes along with other scandals have drawn the censure of congressional Democrats, who tweeted criticism of Pruitt and called for his investigation.
“The Safe Drinking Act is meant to protect communities, not dole out favors to political appointees. Chartered airplanes. Secret phone booths. A sweetheart rent deal with industry lobbyists. Pruitt has embarrassed himself at the EPA and proven he is incapable of leading the agency. It is time for him to go,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.
Former employees have also cited Pruitt’s management of the agency as a reason for their departure.
President Donald Trump originally offered his support for Pruitt, according to the Associated Press. Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the AP that the president called Pruitt on Monday and told him that “we’ve got your back” and to “keep his head up.”
However, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that the president was not OK with Pruitt’s reported actions.
When Trump was asked whether he had confidence in Pruitt as he boarded Air Force One on Thursday, he responded “I do.”
Trump has in the past offered support to embattled cabinet members, only to call for their removal just weeks later, most recently with ousted Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.