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Beleaguered EPA chief Scott Pruitt resigns amid scandals

By Evan Halper • Jul 5, 2018 at 11:58 PM

WASHINGTON — Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, one of the most scandal-plagued Cabinet officials in U.S. history, is leaving the agency.

“I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Trump said in a tweet Thursday. “Within the agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this.”

He said Pruitt’s deputy at EPA, Andrew Wheeler, will assume control on Monday as acting administrator. The naming of Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and longtime Washington insider, assures that even in Pruitt’s absence, the EPA will continue to pursue an agenda driven by the fossil fuel industry.

“I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda,” Trump wrote. “We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!”

The departure of the anti-regulatory crusader Pruitt ends a bizarre and tumultuous chapter of the Trump administration that puzzled even some of the president’s staunchest supporters.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) previously called for Pruitt’s resignation after initial reports of the EPA administrator’s misuse of taxpayer funds.

“Scott Pruitt used taxpayer dollars to benefit himself while working to gut Lake Erie cleanup and the Renewable Fuel Standard and the Ohio jobs that depend on them,” Brown said Friday. “He never should have been confirmed in the first place, and it’s past time for him to go.”

The spendthrift EPA chief has been a political liability for the White House for months, drawing the attention of federal investigators with scandal after scandal, many of which were linked to his lavish spending of taxpayer money and the use of his position to enrich his family. Pruitt leaves the post the target of more than a dozen official probes.

The transgressions include Pruitt’s deal with the wife of a top energy lobbyist for deeply discounted housing, huge raises he gave friends against the instructions of the White House and his penchant for flying first class. Pruitt used his office to try to secure his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise and also enlisted aides to try to help her land lucrative work elsewhere. He had a $43,000 phone booth installed in his office.

“Scott Pruitt’s corruption and coziness with industry lobbyists finally caught up with him,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group. “We’re happy that Pruitt can no longer deceive Americans or destroy our environment.”

The executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington issued a one-word statement: “Good.”

Pruitt’s unyielding loyalty to Trump was reflected in a resignation letter Thursday laden with genuflection and references to divine intervention. The departing agency head wrote that he believed “God’s providence” brought Trump to Washington, and Pruitt to work for him there.

“Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your administration,” Pruitt wrote. “However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, (and) my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.”

During a trip to Montana Thursday evening, Trump said, “I think Scott felt that he was a distraction.” The president said Pruitt’s resignation was “very much up to him.”

Although Trump initially backed Pruitt and prominent conservatives had lobbied to keep him in place, the scandals eventually became too much for the administration.

Pruitt has been seen by conservatives as among Trump’s most effective Cabinet members, aggressively dismantling clean water and air rules, working from the inside to weaken the agency’s authority and rolling back the Obama-era climate action loathed by fossil fuel companies.

The latest Cabinet shuffle reflects a remarkable turnabout for Pruitt, once a rising GOP star. The EPA position was seen by Pruitt’s allies as a launchpad for bigger ambitions, such as a run for the Senate or Oklahoma governorship, and possibly even the presidency.

But that political future has been thrown into doubt amid investigations into behavior the White House was unwilling to defend, such as the unauthorized purchase of the soundproof phone booth meant to deter eavesdroppers.

The departure is a blow to anti-regulatory activists eager to see the rules of the Obama era scrapped. Several of the battles Pruitt launched against regulations, such as the aggressive fuel economy standards championed by California and the federal Clean Power Plan aimed at reducing electricity plant emissions, are likely to endure for years. The Trump administration already was sprinting to get the rules rewritten and through court challenges before the next presidential election.

The shake-up could slow that work and give environmental groups and the coalition of states fighting Pruitt’s agenda an advantage.

Yet in Wheeler, they will find themselves up against an even tougher — albeit less visible — foe than Pruitt. Wheeler has spent more than two decades in Washington, often working skillfully behind the scenes to ease regulations on oil and gas companies. He spent 14 years advising Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., one of the most prominent and vocal climate-change deniers in Washington. He has a mastery of the regulatory process that likely exceeds Pruitt’s, whose political ambitions often seemed to distract from the complicated process of rewriting regulations.

Many of Pruitt’s rollbacks are in legal jeopardy because he pushed them out in haste. Wheeler is known to move slower, and more competently. Environmental groups are alarmed by the prospect of him at the helm. “I have no doubt and complete confidence (Wheeler) will continue the important deregulatory work that Scott Pruitt started while being a good steward of the environment,” said Inhofe.

Still, in his short time at the EPA, Pruitt managed to do more to undermine the environmental protection work of its career scientists, analysts and enforcement officers than any leader of the agency since the early days of the Reagan administration. Former agency chiefs — including some who served GOP presidents — were shocked by Pruitt’s climate-change denialism and his hostility toward many bedrock environmental rules.

Pruitt often was unabashedly at war with his own agency, alleging it was under the control of activist bureaucrats working in tandem with environmental groups to impose a radical agenda. Pruitt’s stewardship of the agency reflected a Republican Party that has grown disenchanted with environmental rules and an administration that has little regard for the concerns of voters outside its base. Just 36 percent of Republicans surveyed last year by the Pew Research Center said stricter environmental laws were worth the cost, down from 58 percent a decade earlier.

When Pruitt’s ethics problems became insurmountable, he blamed his troubles on those same forces, accusing them of manufacturing controversy to thwart his deregulation push.

But concern about Pruitt’s ethics issues ultimately reached the White House, where Trump advisors worried his spending habits and management undermined Trump’s vow to “drain the swamp” of government waste and corruption. Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a Trump ally, said in June that Pruitt “is about as swampy as you get.”

The housing arrangement, which Pruitt likened to “an Airbnb situation,” allowed him to stay in a condo a block from the Capitol for $50 a night, paying only for nights he was in town — far below market rates for such a room.

Pruitt also helped two of his confidants secure giant pay raises against White House instructions. After getting turned down by the White House, the EPA granted the raises by invoking a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act that allowed Pruitt to make up to 30 hires without White House or congressional approval. The salary of one of the aides was boosted to $164,200 from $107,435. The other saw a salary increase from $86,460 to $114,590.

As the housing and salary hike controversies emerged, Pruitt already was battling fallout from his tendency to fly first class for government travel, and also arranging his taxpayer-funded trips so he could spend weekends at his home in Oklahoma. Pruitt said security concerns demanded he fly in the luxury cabin, but it was a clear departure from the practice of past EPA leaders. A member of his security detail said flying in coach exposed him to angry members of the public.

Reports that Pruitt sidelined EPA staffers who objected to his requests for special treatment didn’t help his case. The Pruitt requests that caused staff to bristle, according to The New York Times, included the blaring of government vehicle sirens to cut through traffic on routine trips, his first-class plane trips and a security detail three times the size of that of his predecessors. There also was a request for a bulletproof vehicle with tires resistant to gunfire.

As Pruitt struggled to explain it all, more scandals kept emerging. E-mails obtained by the Sierra Club revealed how Pruitt had his staff schedule a meeting with the CEO of Chick-fil-A, with the goal of landing his wife a franchise. Reports emerged that he tasked them with such things as acquiring a used mattress, tracking down the luxury skin lotion he prefers and using their personal credit cards to cover his hotel bills.

By July, it was clear that even some of Pruitt’s most loyal aides would no longer protect him. They detailed for congressional investigators more of the agency chief’s questionable conduct, including tasking aides with finding his wife a job. The White House communications staff had long since stopped defending Pruitt, and so had many conservatives.

Yet Trump continued tweeting his praise. Now, it seems, even the president has had enough of the turmoil Pruitt added to his administration.

“It’s no secret corn farmers have been frustrated with Scott Pruitt’s ongoing actions over the past year that have seriously undermined the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS),” said North Dakota farmer Kevin Skunes, president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).

“Even with this leadership change at the EPA, our priorities do not change,” Skunes added. “We will continue to push the EPA to stop granting unjustified RFS waivers. We expect the EPA to account for the more than 1.6 billion gallons the agency waived from 2016 and 2017 RFS obligations, and we will continue ask EPA to follow through on the president’s commitment to remove outdated regulations to allow higher blends of ethanol like E15 to be sold year-round.

We are hopeful Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler will work with America’s corn farmers to give consumers more options at the pump to save them money and reduce emissions and provide farmers with certainty in the marketplace that comes with RFS integrity.”

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

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