That’s what Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told me about the allegations facing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. On Saturday, The Hill reported that Pruitt conducted official EPA business with the fossil fuel lobbyist whose wife rented Pruitt a $50/night room in the couple’s condominium on Capitol Hill in D.C. The lobbyist, Steven J. Hart, had previously denied doing business with the agency in the past two years. Pruitt had also previously said that “Hart has no clients that have business before this agency.”
Painter, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s ethical lapses, told me this news could open Pruitt to criminal charges. “I think [Pruitt] is already in violation of the gift rules, because $50 a room a night in D.C. is a gift,” he said. “But when you meet the gift-giver and sit down and conduct official business with him, you make yourself vulnerable to prosecution under the bribery statute.” Painter also noted, however, that it’s difficult to convict politicians on bribery charges, and that it’s unlikely Trump’s Department of Justice would go after Pruitt. (Painter is exploring a run for U.S. Senate.)
Pruitt has been under fire for nearly a month due to myriad ethical scandals, mostly surrounding excessive spending on travel and security. But Painter said Pruitt’s dishonesty about meeting with Hart does the most potential harm to the public. “I don’t like him wasting taxpayer money—a $43,000 phone booth, I don’t appreciate it,” he said. “But trashing the planet for energy companies is far, far worse.”
This isn’t the first time Pruitt has been caught in a contradiction lately. He told Fox News that he didn’t know about large pay raises given to his top aides, but The Atlantic uncovered an email that suggests he personally approved it.
Updated on April 23 at 1:01 p.m.