Government Executive: Pruitt's Low-Rent Apartment in 2017 Raises New Ethics Questions
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared to pay well below market rate for an apartment he rented in Washington, D.C., last year, putting him in possible violation of federal ethics rules.
“If they had the house entirely to themselves, it becomes a little less likely that $50 per night is market rate,” said Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics.
Shaub said ethics officials would have to examine three factors to determine if Pruitt was in violation of the standards of conduct. If the administrator received approval from agency ethics staff in advance of the arrangement, it would give him a “get-out-of-jail-free card” even if the deal was later found to be a violation. Bloomberg has reported that Pruitt did not receive such advanced approval. Second, ethics officials would verify that the rental was in fact below market rate and therefore constituted a gift. Further investigations would likely examine the terms of the agreement and not just the value. As the Airbnb listings suggest, renters typically pay a premium when renting on a nightly basis.
Finally, Pruitt could avoid wrongdoing if he could prove he holds a personal friendship with Vicki Hart. Shaub cautioned that the onus would be on Pruitt to prove such a relationship existed, and ethics officials would ask how long the two had known each other, how often the two socialized and communicated, and whether they had exchanged large gifts in the past. Recently fired David Shulkin came under fire while secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department after an inspector general report found he accepted tickets to a tennis tournament from someone with whom he claimed to have a personal relationship. Auditors cast doubt upon the assertion that the two were actually close enough to warrant the gift exception.
“It’s not a question of whether someone is a casual acquaintance,” said Shaub, now at the Campaign Legal Center. “It would be legitimate for someone to say we don’t know the answer so maybe an IG or somebody should look into this.”
If Pruitt is found to have violated the standards of conduct, his case would go before President Trump for potential discipline. Punishment could range from a reprimand to termination. Under a rule Shaub instituted while OGE director, Pruitt could technically fall in line with requirements but still have to justify how his arrangement passed the eye test.
“You still have to stop and ask yourself if accepting the gift would raise questions, if a reasonable person would be concerned about your impartiality,” Shaub said. “The reporting has raised enough questions that we’re now owed some answers.”