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The E.P.A.’s Ethics Officer Once Defended Pruitt. Then He Urged Investigations.

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© Doug Mills/The New York Times


By ERIC LIPTON, The New York Times
WASHINGTON

The chief ethics officer of the Environmental Protection Agency — the official whose main job is to help agency staffers obey government ethics laws — has been working behind the scenes to push for a series of independent investigations into possible improprieties by Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, a letter sent this week says.

The letter is the first public acknowledgment that Kevin S. Minoli, who has frequently defended Mr. Pruitt’s actions since he took over the agency in February 2017, is now openly questioning whether Mr. Pruitt violated federal ethics rules.

The investigations recommended by Mr. Minoli include an examination of how Mr. Pruitt rented a $50-a-night condominium on Capitol Hill last year while he was being lobbied by J. Steven Hart, the spouse of the condo’s owner, according to a federal official with firsthand knowledge of the inquiries, who asked not to be named since the details of the investigation are intended to remain confidential.

In March, Mr. Minoli defended Mr. Pruitt’s lease for the condo, saying that Mr. Pruitt paid what appeared to be fair market value. He subsequently learned that Mr. Hart, who at the time was chairman of the lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, had repeatedly intervened with the E.P.A., and with Mr. Pruitt directly, on behalf of the lobbying clients that included Smithfield Foods and Coca-Cola.

Mr. Minoli also asked the E.P.A.’s inspector general, the agency’s independent investigative office, to examine evidence that an aide to Mr. Pruitt helped him search for housing and handled other personal matters during work hours last year. And a request was also forwarded to the inspector general related to a $2,000 payment Mr. Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn, received from Concordia, a Manhattan-based nonprofit group that had invited Mr. Pruitt to speak at an event last year in New York.

Mr. Pruitt is facing 13 federal inquiries into his spending and management practices as E.P.A. administrator, including the condo arrangement and the use of staff members for personal errands, as well as his first-class travel expenses and the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office.

The E.P.A. on Saturday declined to comment on the allegations related to Mr. Pruitt. In the past, the agency has said that Mr. Pruitt paid rent on the condominium, so there was nothing inappropriate about the arrangement, and that the former aide, Millan Hupp, is a friend of Mr. Pruitt’s family and provided personal help on her own time.

Matters like the ones Mr. Minoli raised with investigators have the potential to represent a violation of federal ethics rules because, for example, staff members are not allowed to use agency resources for personal benefit.

“Consistent with my obligations under Office of Government Ethics regulations, I have referred a number of those matters to EPA’s Inspector General and have provided ‘ready and active assistance’ to the Inspector General and his office,” said the letter, which was sent Wednesday by Mr. Minoli. A copy of the letter was obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information request. “To the best of my knowledge, all of the matters that I have referred are either under consideration for acceptance or under active investigation.”

The letter does not mention the specific matters or the total number of referrals related to Mr. Pruitt.

The push to investigate Mr. Pruitt came as the ethics office at the E.P.A., which is a part of the agency’s Office of General Counsel, suffered a severe staff shortage because of an agency hiring freeze last year, Mr. Minoli’s letter says. At one point last summer, after retirements and other temporary departures, the office had only one full-time employee.

© Philip J. Ross, E.P.A. Office of General Counsel


Mr. Minoli has since moved to rebuild the office and expects to soon have six staff members and a manager to help handle the surge in requests it has received, the letter says.

John Konkus, an E.P.A. public-affairs official, in a statement on Saturday afternoon said that before Mr. Minoli drafted his letter the agency had moved to authorize the hiring of two staff members for his office to allow it to expand its work and enhance “ongoing ethics training and retraining for E.P.A. staff.” He also said that “the entire E.P.A. is always responsive to the O.I.G.,” referring to the agency’s Office of Inspector General. His statement did not address the allegations against Mr. Pruitt.

Mr. Minoli sent the five-page memo to David J. Apol, the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, which oversees ethics programs at all federal agencies. Mr. Minoli’s memo came in part in response to two letters Mr. Apol sent to the E.P.A. raising his own ethics concerns about the agency.

“Public trust demands that all employees act in the public’s interest, and free from any actual or perceived conflicts, when fulfilling the governmental responsibilities entrusted to them,” Mr. Apol wrote to Mr. Minoli in April. “Agency heads in particular bear a heightened responsibility,” he added, before detailing some of the same ethics allegations that Mr. Minoli has apparently also asked the agency’s inspector general to investigate.

As the head of the E.P.A.’s ethics program and the principal deputy general counsel at the agency, Mr. Minoli does not have the authority to discipline Mr. Pruitt or other agency employees himself. Instead, if he finds evidence of wrongdoing, he may refer the matter to others with greater investigative powers, such as the E.P.A.’s inspector general or the Office of Special Counsel, an outside agency that examines allegations of improper political activity by federal employees, among other matters. Those referrals are typically confidential unless there is a finding of wrongdoing.

Mr. Apol declined to comment on the letter other than to say he had received it. Jeffrey A. Lagda, a spokesman for the E.P.A. inspector general’s office, said he could not comment on any referrals from the agency’s ethics officer. “While I can acknowledge that we’ve received congressional requests related to the specific issues mentioned,” he said, “I cannot comment on anything beyond that fact.”

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