EPA paid $1,560 for 12 fountain pens, emails show

A close aide to Scott Pruitt last year ordered a set of 12 fountain pens that cost the Environmental Protection Agency $1,560, according to agency documents.

Each $130 silver pen bore the agency’s seal and Administrator Pruitt’s signature, according to the documents, which were obtained by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Yes, please order,” an aide wrote.

The order from the Washington shop Tiny Jewel Box also included a set of journals that cost $1,670.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the pens were similar to purchases made by Pruitt’s predecessors “for the purpose of serving as gifts to the Administrator’s foreign counterparts and dignitaries upon his meeting with them.”

Purchasing records show the EPA under the Obama administration made a $2,952 purchase from the same shop in 2009 for “non-monetary awards for Administrator.”

The purchase stands out not only for the cost but also because it was approved by a close aide who Pruitt described in congressional testimony last month as “longtime friend.”

Pruitt has sought to distance from the agency’s controversial spending, including a $43,000 phone booth in his office. He has recently blamed some purchases on “decisions made by career staff,” as he told the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication, this week.

Pruitt’s actions are currently under scrutiny by investigators at the EPA inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and Congress. At least 12 investigations have been opened.

Other emails released by the agency and obtained by the Sierra Club show the same aide working on Pruitt’s apartment search during work hours. In her first year on the job at EPA, she received two raises that boosted her pay by 72%.

The pen purchase was first reported by The Washington Post.

[CNN]

Scott Pruitt and a crew of EPA aides spent four days in Morocco promoting natural gas

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt returned Wednesday from a trip to Morocco, where he talked with officials about their interest in importing natural gas as well as other areas of “continued cooperation” between the two countries.

The EPA disclosed the trip late Tuesday, issuing a media release that included photos and a statement from Pruitt saying that the visit “allowed us to directly convey our priorities and best practices with Moroccan leaders.”

“We are committed to working closely with countries like Morocco to enhance environmental stewardship around the world,” Pruitt said.

The purpose of the trip sparked questions from environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers and some industry experts, who noted that EPA plays no formal role in overseeing natural gas exports. Such activities are overseen primarily by the Energy Department and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Pruitt took along seven aides and an undisclosed number of staff from his protective detail. The group included four political aides, including Samantha Dravis, associate administrator of the Office of Policy, and senior advisers Sarah Greenwalt and Lincoln Ferguson, as well as one career official, Jane Nishida, principal deputy assistant administrator of the Office of International and Tribal Affairs. Pruitt’s head of security determines how many advance staffers travel on any given trip, EPA officials said, and in this instance it was two.

At the request of Senate Democrats, the EPA inspector general is looking into Pruitt’s use of military and private flights, as well as his frequent visits to his home state of Oklahoma during his first few months on the job.

“It seems strange that Administrator Pruitt would prioritize a trip to Morocco to discuss natural gas exports while there is no shortage of more pressing issues here in the U.S. that actually fall within the jurisdiction of the agency he leads,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “I presume Mr. Pruitt is aware his agency’s inspector general is conducting an investigation into his questionable travel, which makes his decision to take this trip an odd choice at best.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement that Pruitt “acts like he is a globe-trotting salesman for the fossil fuel industry who can make taxpayers foot the bill.”

Pruitt traveled in business class for three flights, according to an individual who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an internal agency matter, and in economy class for two flights. Asked about the travel arrangements, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox replied in an email, “Due to concerns from our security team, Administrator Pruitt was granted a waiver by EPA’s Chief Financial Officer to fly business-class.”

Wilcox said he could not provide the trip’s total cost because the travelers’ arrangements were booked through their respective departments.

Pruitt met with three top Moroccan officials, according to the agency statement, including the minister of energy, mines and sustainable development; the minister of justice and liberties; and the secretary of state to the minister of foreign affairs. Wilcox said Pruitt “discussed our bilateral free trade agreement, solid waste response, disaster relief and communications with top Moroccan officials.”

His visit came shortly after the EPA held a workshop in Rabat about solid waste management, public participation and crisis communication.

Morocco, the only African country with which the United States has a free-trade agreement, is a signatory to the 2015 Paris climate agreement and has collaborated in the past with U.S. officials on its push to expand domestic solar energy production. During the trip, Moroccan officials took Pruitt on a tour of the IRESEN Green Energy Park, which the EPA said showed the administrator “firsthand the work being done to promote environmental innovation, including solar energy across Morocco.”

[Washington Post]

Trump Official Blames Obama for His $1 Million Office Redesign

Since the Trump administration moved in last year, there’s been an unspoken competition among Cabinet officials to spend as much taxpayer money as possible in the most questionable of ways. A favorite among the group, of course, has been refusing to come within 20 feet of coach, insisting instead on flying business or first class or, hell, just renting a private plane or borrowing a jet from the government. Also popular? Dropping tens of thousands—and in some cases hundreds of thousands—on office redesigns as though they’re Fortune 100 C.E.O.s and not government bureaucrats.

Over at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, whose department had its funding slashed in the latest White House budget, dropped $31,000 on a dining set for “safety” reasons. At the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, the front-runner for Most Blatantly Corrupt Trump Official, invoiced taxpayers for a “brown maple wood stand-up desk with brass locks,” a second “oversize desk with decorative woodworking that some E.P.A. employees compared to the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office” (cost of refurbishment: $2,075), and a nearly $43,000 soundproof phone booth, which, it turns out, was illegal for him to purchase without notifying Congress first. And to round out the club, on Tuesday afternoon we learned that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, one of the people responsible for dragging us into a trade war with China, spent nearly $1 million to redecorate two of his offices.

According to the New York Post, Lighthizer spent $3,500 of taxpayer money on an antique desk, $859 on a hugely important 30-inch “Executive Office of the President” plaque, and $830 to “transport and install two paintings on loan from the Smithsonian.” In addition, he paid Executive Furniture of Washington, D.C., which specializes in high-end furniture and wood-finished desks, a whopping $475,000. For his staff, he splurged on 60 sit-stand desks ($18,500), a modular wall system ($290,000), and 90 Herman Miller Aeron office chairs ($54,000). But if you thought Lighthizer would take responsibility for the expenditures, think again:

When asked about the spending spree, Lighthizer’s office pointed the finger at the Obama administration.

“The furniture purchases are the culmination of a longtime, planned project that began under the Obama administration to replace two-decade-old furniture,” Lighthizer’s office said in a statement.

(An official from Lighthizer’s office further explained to The Hive: “Ambassador Lighthizer did not direct these expenditures, which were planned and executed consistent with career staff’s spending authority. All furnishings were acquired through Executive Office of the President contracting procedures. In my opinion as a senior career official responsible for developing and implementing this project, these funds were critical for continuing to execute effectively USTR’s mission.”)

Obama-era, unsurprisingly reps were having none of this explanation, telling the Post that they didn’t approve any major remodeling plans and that it was “laughable” Team Trump would try to pin this on them, considering the new administration had no problem pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on day four of Trump’s presidency. “We told 11 other countries that we were going to do a trade deal with them, and the Trump administration found the power to unwind that,” an Obama trade official told the Post. “So furniture purchases cannot be as binding.”

As for whether Lighthizer will suffer any consequences for the pricey interior design choices, the odds are about as likely as Trump blurbing a second print run of James Comey’s book. Though the president is indeed on a firing spree, ethical transgressions like Lighthizer’s seem only to improve one’s standing with the boss. If Pruitt can hang on after his office decor spending spree, shady housing arrangement, and insistence on outfitting his official business car like it’s the Batmobile, then Lighthizer should be just fine.

[Vanity Fair]

Scott Pruitt Bypassed the White House to Give Big Raises to Favorite Aides

In early March, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt approached the White House with a request: He wanted substantial pay raises for two of his closest aides.

The aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, were part of the small group of staffers who had traveled with Pruitt to Washington from Oklahoma, where he had served as attorney general. Greenwalt, a 30-year-old who had worked as Pruitt’s general counsel in Oklahoma, was now his senior counsel at the EPA. Hupp, 26, was working on his political team before she moved to D.C. to become the agency’s scheduling director.

Pruitt asked that Greenwalt’s salary be raised from $107,435 to $164,200; Hupp’s, from $86,460 to $114,590. Because both women were political appointees, he needed the White House to sign-off on their new pay.

According to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, staffers from the Presidential Personnel Office dismissed Pruitt’s application. The White House, the source said, declined to approve the raises.

So Pruitt found another way.

A provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act allows the EPA administrator to hire up to 30 people into the agency, without White House or congressional approval. The provision, meant to help expedite the hiring of experts and allow for more flexible staffing, became law in 1996. In past administrations, it has been used to hire specialists into custom-made roles in especially stressed offices, according to Bob Perciasepe, a former acting EPA administrator.

After the White House rejected their request, Pruitt’s team studied the particulars of the Safe Drinking Water provision, according to the source with direct knowledge of these events. By reappointing Greenwalt and Hupp under this authority, they learned, Pruitt could exercise total control over their contracts and grant the raises on his own.

Pruitt ordered it done. Though Hupp and Greenwalt’s duties did not change, the agency began processing them for raises of $28,130 and $56,765, respectively, compared with their 2017 salaries. Less than two weeks after Pruitt had approached the White House, according to time-stamped Human Resources documents shared with The Atlantic, the paperwork was finished.

Word of the raises quickly began to circulate through the agency. The episode infuriated some staffers; to some political aides, it was evidence of Pruitt’s disregard for the White House’s warnings to cabinet officials that they avoid even the appearance of impropriety. It also underscored the administrator’s tendency to play favorites among his staff, according to two sources with direct knowledge of agency dynamics. Hupp, in particular, is making more than her Obama-era predecessor, a five-year veteran of the agency who did not break six figures until the final year of the administration, according to public records. (While Greenwalt has no obvious peer in the Obama administration, the EPA’s general counsel had an annual salary of $155,500 in 2016.)

Said one EPA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press: “This whole thing has completely gutted any morale I had left to put up with this place.”

“The Safe Drinking Water Act provides the EPA with broad authority to appoint scientific, engineering, professional, legal, and administrative positions within EPA without regard to the civil service laws. This is clear authority that has been relied on by previous administrations,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement. “The Administrator was not aware that these personnel actions had not been submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office. So, the Administrator has directed that they be submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office for review.”

The White House did not return requests for comment.

[The Atlantic]

Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt caught living in prime DC condo owned by top energy lobbyist’s wife

President Donald Trump’s environmental chief has been living in a townhouse co-owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt occupies the home a short distance from the U.S. Capitol, but neither the agency or lobbyist J. Steven Hart would say how much the Trump administration official has been paying to live in the prime location, reported ABC News.

The cost of the rental agreement will be a key question in determining whether the property is an improper gift, according to ethics experts.

Hart confirmed to ABC News that Pruitt lived in the condo, which is owned through a limited liability company that links to address owned by the lobbyist and his wife Vicki Hart — who is a lobbyist specializing in health care.

The Harts were described in 2010 by the newspaper Roll Call as a “lobbyist power couple.”

Steven Hart, chairman and CEO of Williams and Jensen, previously served in the Reagan Justice Department and is a top Republican fundraiser, and his firm reported more than $16 million in federal lobbying income last year.

“Among his many clients are the NRA and Cheniere Energy Inc., which reported paying Hart’s firm $80,000 a year,” ABC News reported.

[Raw Story]

Emails show Ben Carson and his wife were personally involved in buying $31,000 office furniture

Newly released emails show Ben Carson and his wife personally selected a $31,000 dining room set for his office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The liberal watchdog group American Oversight obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request, and the documents cast doubt on HUD spokesman Raffi Williams’ denial that Carson had any involvement in selecting the furniture, reported CNN.

“Mrs. Carson and the secretary had no awareness that the table was being purchased,” Willliams told CNN last month, when the story first broke. “The secretary did not order a new table. The table was ordered by the career staffers in charge of the building.”

Carson himself blamed the purchase on an unnamed HUD staffer, and told CNN he was “surprised” by the $31,000 price tag and promised to cancel the order — which the company confirmed had happened on March 1.

“The secretary did not order a new table,” said Carson, the HUD secretary. “The table was ordered by the career staffers in charge of the building.”

But the newly released emails show two Carson aides discussed the dining set back in May 2017, when they asked about repairing the “fairly precarious” existing furniture, which would have cost an estimated $1,100 to fix.

Carson’s statement earlier this month confirmed he feared the old furniture was “unsafe” and “beyond repair.”

HUD’s scheduling office contacted Candy Carson, the secretary’s wife, in August to take part in the office redecorating, although the emails don’t show a response from her.

Carson said he and his wife were told there was a $25,000 budget that must be used by a deadline or it would be lost, and they received a $24,666 quote for the furniture.

“The career administration staffer sent the quote to Carson’s office,” CNN reported, “specifically Carson’s chief of staff and his executive assistant, casting further doubt on the agency’s assertion that the purchase was made entirely by career staff.”

The staffer told Carson the quote seemed to be reasonable and justified the purchase because the previous furniture was purchased in 1988, and receipts showed HUD moved forward with the purchase — which was now $7,000 higher — four months later.

One email chain shows serving cart options were approved by “leadership” but doesn’t specify who made the request.

That appears to contradict Williams’ sweeping denial that Carson and his wife had any involvement in the purchase process, or any interest in doing so.

Helen Foster, a senior career official at HUD, says she was demoted and replaced by a Trump appointee after refusing to break the law to approve the over-budget redecoration.

[Raw Story]

EPA Head Says He Needs to Fly First Class Because People Are Mean to Him in Coach

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency has broken months of silence about his frequent premium-class flights at taxpayer expense, saying he needs to fly first class because of unpleasant interactions with other travelers.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt spoke about his flight costs on Tuesday in a pair of interviews in New Hampshire, following a first-class flight to meet with the state’s Republican governor and tour a toxic waste site.

Pruitt told the New Hampshire Union Leader he had some “incidents” on flights shortly after his appointment by President Donald Trump last year.

“We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment,” said Pruitt, who confirmed to the newspaper that he had flown first class from Washington to Boston before continuing on to New Hampshire. “We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat.”

Pruitt is the first EPA administrator to have a 24-hour security detail that accompanies him at all times, even at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. He has also taken other security precautions, including the addition of a $25,000 soundproof “privacy booth” to prevent eavesdropping on his phone calls and spending $3,000 to have his office swept for hidden listening devices.

Pruitt said he was not involved in the decision for him to fly first class.

“There have been instances, unfortunately, during my time as administrator, as I’ve flown and spent time, of interaction that’s not been the best,” Pruitt told WMUR TV in Manchester, New Hampshire. “And, so, ingress and egress off the plane … that’s all decisions all made by our (security) detail team, by the chief of staff, by the administration. I don’t make any of those decisions. They place me on the plane where they think is best from a safety perspective.”

Pruitt was asked about the issue following a Washington Post report on Sunday that detailed some of his travel expenses, including a $1,641.43 first-class seat for a short flight in June from Washington to New York City. Pruitt’s ticket cost six times what EPA paid for his aides seated in coach.

The Associated Press reported in July and again in December that spending on commercial airline tickets purchased for Pruitt indicated he was flying in premium-class seats. EPA’s press office has repeatedly refused to comment on whether Pruitt was flying first class.

Federal regulations allow government travelers to fly business class or first class when no cheaper options are “reasonably available” or if there are exceptional security circumstances. However, past federal audits have found that those rules have been routinely violated by high-ranking government officials under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

[TIME]

Officials raised ethics concerns over Ben Carson’s son assisting HUD event

Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) expressed concerns that Secretary Ben Carson recently risked violating ethics rules by getting family help in organizing a HUD event last year, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Linda Cruciani, HUD’s deputy general counsel for operations, and other department officials were reportedly uneasy that Carson’s son and daughter-in-law were involved with last summer’s “listening tour” event in Baltimore.

They worried that Ben Carson Jr., who is a local businessman, was inviting potential business associates to the event, which “gave the appearance that the secretary may be using his position for his son’s private gain,” according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post.

Carson denies any conflict of interest. He said in a statement to the newspaper that his family has “never influenced any decision at HUD.”

The event in question was reportedly aimed at gathering feedback from area business leaders. Carson’s wife, son and daughter-in-law ultimately attended multiple events in Baltimore last summer, according to the Post.

Carson Jr. reportedly promised Cruciani ahead of the event that “nothing we would do would be near a conflict.”

It is not the first time questions have been raised over Carson’s family involvement in his work, but Carson has repeatedly denied that his family overtly influences HUD decisions.

Carson, who briefly ran for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, was one of President Trump‘s earliest supporters after dropping out of the race. He was confirmed last March to be HUD secretary by a 58-41 vote, despite controversy over his lack of government experience.

Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon, has rejected such criticisms, saying successful leaders surround themselves with the right people.

“I liken it to the CEO of a large medical center,” he said at an event last October. “They probably don’t know about infectious disease, or neurosurgery, or anesthesia or pathology. But they have a lot of people who do know a lot about those things.”

[The Hill]