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Top EPA ethics official discloses that he has urged additional probes into Pruitt

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks on June 2, 2017, during a briefing in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington D.C. (Molly Riley/Sipa USA/TNS)
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks on June 2, 2017, during a briefing in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House in Washington D.C. (Molly Riley/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency’s chief ethics officer, who initially had approved a $50-a-night condo rental and other decisions by administrator Scott Pruitt, disclosed this week that he has urged the agency’s inspector general to investigate various allegations that Pruitt misused his government position.

Kevin Minoli, who focuses on ensuring that EPA employees abide by federal laws governing conduct, told the Office of Government Ethics in a letter dated Wednesday that he had recommended the new inquiries after “additional potential issues regarding Mr. Pruitt have come to my attention through sources within the EPA and media reports.”

The letter, first reported Saturday by the New York Times and obtained independently by The Post, does not spell out the precise actions that triggered Minoli’s concern. But a government official with direct knowledge of the inquiries, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details have not been released publicly, said the referrals involved instances in which Pruitt potentially misused his position, such as having subordinates help with his housing search, inquire about a mattress or secure tickets to the Rose Bowl. Federal standards of conduct bar public officials from accepting free services or gifts from their subordinates, and from using their position for their own financial benefit.

The referrals also included a $2,000 payment, first reported by The Post nearly a month ago, that Pruitt’s wife received last year to help with logistics at an annual conference for the New York nonprofit group Concordia, the official said. Pruitt also spoke at the conference and had introduced his wife to the group’s chief executive as part of a broader push to find her employment.

“To the best of my knowledge, all of the matters that I have referred are either under consideration for acceptance or under active investigation,” Minoli wrote, adding that he had “provided ‘ready and active assistance’ to the Inspector General and his office.”

In a March memo, Minoli initially had approved approved retroactively of Pruitt’s lease of a room in a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by health-care lobbyist Vicki Hart, saying that the favorable rate - $50-a-night, charged only when he stayed there - did not constitute a gift because that rate for 30 consecutive days would have equated to a monthly rent of $1,500. Minoli described that as “a reasonable market value.”

But days later, he wrote a subsequent memo saying he lacked key facts when he first evaluated the lease. After the news broke, multiple current and former EPA officials confirmed that Pruitt’s daughter stayed at the condo for free last summer while she was working as a White House intern. “Some have raised questions whether the actual use of the space was consistent with the terms of the lease,” Minoli wrote. “Evaluating those questions would have required factual information that was not before us and the Review does not address those questions.”

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In addition, EPA ethics officials only later learned that Vicki Hart’s husband, Steven Hart, who was the chairman of the prominent firm Williams & Jensen at the time of the rental, also had lobbied the EPA on behalf of clients such as Coca-Cola and Smithfield Foods.

Minoli also gave ethics approval for several private and military flights that Pruitt took early in his tenure, including a $5,719 private air charter last August from Denver to Durango, Colo., as well as a $36,068 military jet that Pruitt and several aides took last June from an event with President Donald Trump in Ohio to New York to catch a flight to Italy.

In a statement Saturday, the EPA noted that the bulk of Minoli’s five-page letter to OGE’s acting director involved merely reporting back “on a number of administrative and staffing issues, some of which predate the Trump Administration.” The EPA noted that it had taken “early steps to address some of the concerns the OGE raised well before this letter was sent last week, including the hiring of two additional ethics officials and ongoing ethics training and retraining” staff.

“Part of the remainder of the letter discusses cooperation with the (Office of the Inspector General), a normal course of business for any agency, and the entire EPA is always responsive to the OIG and their requests for information,” EPA spokesman John Konkus said in the statement.

The EPA inspector general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

Minoli’s letter came months after a top government ethics official implored the EPA to address any violations linked to Pruitt’s spending habits, his condo lease from a lobbyist and various personnel decisions.

David Apol, OGE’s acting director, took the unusual step in April of telling EPA officials that some ethics questions surrounding Pruitt deserved further scrutiny. “Public trust demands that all employees act in the public interest, and free from any actual or perceived conflicts,” he wrote to Minoli at the time.

EPA’s Minoli answered Apol’s letter with one of his own, noting that agency ethics officials “lack independent investigatory authority,” according to a copy of the response reviewed by The Washington Post. Rather, Minoli wrote, his office has a “long-standing practice” of referring such inquiries to the EPA inspector general.

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