Even in an administration that has seen controversy at almost every cabinet position, the problems at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are exceptional. Controversies at the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt exist on many levels: abuse of power, cronyism, undue influence, failures of accountability and leadership, and spending that is literally out of control (as in, no one seems to be controlling it). The sheer number of reasons Mr. Pruitt should resign or be removed with all alacrity might themselves constitute another reason.
The term “scandal-plagued” is not hyperbolic when it comes to describing Mr. Pruitt’s EPA. The New York Times in April listed twelve official investigations of the administrator and his agency by Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and EPA’s independent Office of Inspector General (OIG). To date, none of the related scandals have gone away, and new ones may be coming.
The administrator’s policy decisions show him to be at best an inappropriate fit for the EPA, and the careless spending taking place under the watch of someone once considered a “fiscal conservative” will have to face much scrutiny before judgment can be passed. But his misunderstanding of his office, his rejection of science, and his simple inability to stop the flow of scandals render him unfit regardless of any other consideration. The need for Mr. Pruitt’s departure is a bi-partisan one: Democrats wish to be rid of so poor a steward of the environment and EPA, and Republicans should want to distance themselves from such a caricature of bad governance.
Most egregious of Mr. Pruitt’s inadequacies are concerns many harbored from the moment of his nomination. These concerns – namely the fundamental differences between his views and the very mission of the agency itself, his relationship with those in industries his agency is charged with regulating, and his penchant for self-enrichment which is thoroughly out of step with the requirements of public office – have been borne out in spades since his narrow Senate approval.
A more accurate title for this piece could be “Three Reasons Scott Pruitt Should Resign or be Removed, Five Reasons He Could be Forced to Resign or be Removed, and Two Reasons He Should Never have been Approved as EPA Administrator or even Considered in the First Place; More to Come.”
Unfit From the Start
Reasons # 1 & 2: Mr. Pruitt has never understood, respected, nor intended to follow the mandate of the agency he runs; Mr. Pruitt had a history of abusing his position
“The EPA [is] charged with protecting the environment by abating pollution.”
Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1970, through which President Nixon created the EPA, repeatedly explains that the intention of the Agency is to study pollution and determine the best ways to minimize its impacts. Mr. Pruitt’s primary motivation has always been protecting the interests of industry, not minimizing the pollution created by industrial activities.
No one would have suggested that Scott Pruitt, the Attorney General for Oklahoma who had brought numerous suits against the federal EPA, was an advocate for environmental protection. Supporters argued that he was a staunch supporter of the rule of law, but this is only true if the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are not considered “laws.” He saw – and continues to see – any interpretation of existing environmental laws focused on concern for the environmental impacts of human activity as “overreach.” He consistently chose industry-sponsored opinion over sound science or long-term thought or planning.
It was clear to forty-six Senators and numerous scientists and scientific and environmental organizations that he was not suited for the job, as his public life prior to his confirmation as EPA head was an ode to fossil fuel interests. It was well known to President Trump that Scott Pruitt would enthusiastically support a deregulatory agenda that continues to take decisions on human health and environmental sustainability out of the hands of the voting public and put them firmly in the hands of unaccountable private industry.
Scott Pruitt had a history of questionable ethics and abuses of power and position in Oklahoma, where he did the bidding of industry insiders (some background is supplied here by Mother Jones) just as he accepted their exact language in making pro-industry, anti-environmental arguments against Obama-Administration regulations.
And so for two reasons it was evident that Scott Pruitt was unfit for his position as EPA Administrator before his name was even suggested for the job: first, his belief that business must be protected from environmental regulation is precisely the opposite of his agency’s mission; second, his favoritism to industry at least led to an undue influence on his official actions, and at most amounted to quid-pro-quo bribery.
Awaiting Confirmation of Another Kind
Reasons number 3-7: Mr. Pruitt may be found responsible for: approving unwarranted agency expenditures; having accepted gifts from those he is meant to be regulating; circumventing proper channels to promote favored staff; punishing whistleblowers who exposed his abuses; and Mr. Pruitt may be shown to have lied to Congress
The dozen-plus investigations into Mr. Pruitt’s EPA put a range of concerns on display, from overspending to mismanagement, from accepting gifts to doing favors for industries he is meant to regulate, to bending the rules in favor of some employees and to the detriment of others. Proof that the administrator knew of or approved any of the illicit or potentially illicit acts under investigation should justify his removal if any standard or guise of integrity is to be upheld by the current administration, from which Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price resigned over only one such scandal.
As well as a range of topics, there is a range of severity and deeper implications among Mr. Pruitt’s scandal docket. Some – like his bargain condo rental from the spouse of a fossil fuel lobbyist – perfectly represent Mr. Pruitt’s desire to live larger than befits a public servant, his willingness to ignore ethical concerns when accepting gifts, and his excessive friendliness with those he is supposed to be regulating.
Others, like his infamous Secrecy Closet, illustrate his spendthriftiness, his unusual need for secrecy – owing perhaps to a history of backdoor dealing – and, along with his outrageous security detail, his paranoia (ironically, his 24-7 security may be the only example of over-precaution on Mr. Pruitt’s part, contrasting with his policy choices and his careless spending choices).
While other scandals merely reiterate either the administrator’s bad decision making or poor leadership – depending on whether he or underlings are ultimately shown to be at fault – others still, owing to their connection with Mr. Pruitt’s EPA, have begun to sound far worse than they are. For instance, gifts or service awards valued at a couple hundred dollars or less are not unique to Mr. Pruitt’s administration; though probably not a worthwhile use of tax dollars, a couple thousand dollars for a bunch of pens and notebooks is not comparable to unwarranted first-class air travel, personal vacations at public expense, or using a motorcade – with sirens blaring – to get to a fancy restaurant.
A critical mass has been achieved through which Mr. Pruitt’s every action and expense is being scrutinized – but he is too arrogant or otherwise too poor a leader to recognize this and put the clamps down.
Case in point, both Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson and EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox are still at work, despite the latter coupling an adverse relationship with the press with a lack of diplomatic skills that would seem to make him ill-suited for his job, and the former’s responsibility for aspects of one of the administrator’s more complicated scandals – the improperly-given raises to some of Mr. Pruitt’s favored staff members.
To summarize, Mr. Pruitt wanted to reward some members of his staff who had come with him from Oklahoma with nice raises. The White House had to approve such raises, and chose not to. So Mr. Pruitt – or rather his Chief of Staff – made use of the administrator’s power under the Safe Drinking Water Act to give these staffers new positions – with pay comparable to the raises they had been denied. And no, neither the positions nor the staffers’ expertise had anything to do with safe drinking water.
Intriguingly, those appointed staff members have recently resigned, as have many other appointees and career staff under Administrator Pruitt. Another departing staffer even tried to back-date her departure to escape an interview before Congress. Still more have been forced out or reassigned or otherwise punished for expressing concerns about the administrator’s spending.
This issue is of great concern to the Government Accountability Project. If it is proven that Mr. Pruitt retaliated against staff for blowing the whistle on his abuses – that is, for doing their jobs – he must be held accountable.
One of those staff members, Kevin Chmielewski, stated that Mr. Pruitt had lied before Congress when he claimed not to have punished staff for raising these concerns, and when he claimed to have no knowledge of the aforementioned backdoor raises for favored employees. These represent one more reason why Mr. Pruitt must go, and they are not the only examples of his dishonesty when speaking to members of Congress. He did so during his confirmation hearing when he minimized the true level of his connections with the fossil fuel industry and its advocates – which was demonstrated when Oklahoma finally released requested documents on the day Mr. Pruitt was confirmed, including emails between Mr. Pruitt and industry insiders, and information about speeches he gave to organizations with anti-environmental agendas.
More suspect behavior comes to light regularly, but the list of potential offenses already seems as though another straw is unnecessary. Yet they keep emerging – Mr. Pruitt has also used unofficial email addresses as EPA Administrator, he has used his position to attempt to enrich his wife, and the list of personal errands and favors performed for Mr. Pruitt by his employees has become absurd.
And so, while the investigations touch on many of the reasons that render Mr. Pruitt an unfit public servant, they are only a part of the picture.
An Unfit Public Servant
Reasons # 8-10: Mr. Pruitt does industry’s bidding while ignoring science and the public interest; Mr. Pruitt does not accept mainstream, peer-reviewed science as a policy tool; Mr. Pruitt has shown no accountability and no capacity to manage a federal agency
There is a line, however vague and shifting, between legitimate policy decisions and illegitimate, unjustifiable hand-outs to favored causes or supporters. The legal term is “rational basis”: agencies must be able to reasonably justify their actions. This is an extremely generous burden on agencies that will generally allow courts to approve their actions. This is one way courts defer to a democratically elected Executive Branch.
But there still comes a point at which the proffered justification is inadequate. In the case of many of Mr. Pruitt’s decisions as EPA Administrator, his own deference to the wants of industry over the detached analysis of peer-reviewed science cannot be justified without warping the term “rational” until it has no meaning at all.
His time in office has been spent ignoring environmental organizations to spend time with his fossil fuel pals. Mr. Pruitt is devoted to the needs and desires of industry and indifferent to the health of the environment or the public, just as he was as Attorney General of Oklahoma.
Scientists and scientific organizations have consistently been critical of Administrator Pruitt’s distrust of science. He has replaced various EPA scientists with industry insiders, he has restricted scientists from speaking about or even working in their areas of expertise, and he is attempting to replace valuable, long-standing research with junk science.
But as often has been the case throughout Mr. Pruitt’s crusade against the environment, his bad ideas only get him so far. Courts often decide against Mr. Pruitt, as his documentation to support his agenda can never truly counterbalance the weight of scientific knowledge against which he tilts. Recently the US District Court in DC required EPA to present the science that supports Mr. Pruitt’s policy choices to the public when asked via the Freedom of Information Act. When one’s premise is deliberately irrational, there is hope yet for even as weak a barricade as the “rational basis” test.
With career employees leaving in disgust and appointed staff members quitting rather than lose professional credibility, one can’t miss the irony of an EPA with a toxic work environment. By scapegoating and hamstringing all those below him, by rejecting science and the mission of his agency, and through a series of scandals and inept management decisions, Mr. Pruitt has shown some qualifications as a dictator, but none as the head of an administrative agency in a democratic republic.
Mr. Pruitt has misunderstood the goal of his agency to be the protection of business, not the environment. He has done everything the fossil fuel industry could ask (has asked?), and ignored any sound science that tells him he is wrong. He has at best failed to manage the agency he runs with any accountability, and at worst has used his position like a monarch and for personal gain. He can leave, wait to be fired, or continue to represent the worst of this administration – pushing as hard as he can to see at what point members of his party will completely abandon him. But he must go.
Removing Scott Pruitt will not solve the problem – but it won’t hurt
Before he makes his departure, Scott Pruitt appears intent on destroying the Environmental Protection Agency, and thus doing irreparable damage to our land, water, atmosphere, and health. More pollutants and hazardous chemicals will enter our environment because of his unsupportable views. More people will die because of lax control of pollutants and chemicals. Those facts alone justify his removal, and don’t even take account of the incalculable damage done by a changing climate.
In the final analysis, Administrator Pruitt must leave his position whether it be because he has broken the law, lost whatever public trust he ever garnered, or simply shown himself to be wholly incapable of managing a government agency through either corruption, ineptitude, or an inexcusable lack of accountability. It therefore falls on the President and Congress to establish a higher standard when choosing Mr. Pruitt’s replacement – and to do so soon, because the current deputy who would fill the position until a new administrator is approved, Andrew Wheeler, is as grotesque an industry pal and environmental foe as his boss. Mr. Pruitt’s friend, fellow Oklahoman, and fellow climate science denier Senator James Inhofe reluctantly admitted that the administrator’s scandals may demand his replacement, but his remorse was tempered by the knowledge that Mr. Wheeler is next in line.
Since his approval as administrator, Scott Pruitt has consistently demonstrated his total lack of suitability for the job. He not only poses a danger to the environment, but also to the public, the economy, and even the industries whose interests his policies currently serve, as they will be rendered incapable of competing in a global marketplace against cheaper, cleaner, more sustainable industries. They will, appropriately, go the way of the dinosaur as they prove utterly unsuited to a new reality and fail to adapt because of a false sense of security.
Mr. Pruitt’s policy choices ultimately hurt even those they are meant to help – but those positions are generally shared by his party and his President. Republicans will not turn on Scott Pruitt over his anti-environmental, pro-business stances, and Democratic disapproval will not force the administrator’s resignation. His more innocuous poor choices, however, seem increasingly likely to lead to his downfall.
Like Senator Inhofe, President Trump is finally expressing some concern about the ethical questions surrounding EPA’s administrator. It seems likely that this is a precursor for Mr. Pruitt’s dismissal, which is awaiting the Trump Administration’s identification of an equally anti-environmental replacement who will draw less attention with terrible spending, personal, and personnel decisions. While Mr. Pruitt’s departure will be welcome by fans of integrity, science, human health, and the environment, the sad truth is that Mr. Wheeler or some other replacement who holds Mr. Pruitt’s tragic views on science and law but lacks his obvious ethical shortcomings will easily receive the approval of the Senate.