EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s behavior in public office threatens democratic institutions everywhere.
This week, embattled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt will testify before Congress, where legislators are expected to question him publicly for the first time about the string of scandals that have plagued his (brief) tenure in office. While the fact that he spent his entire career fighting against the EPA before he was nominated to lead the agency was not scandal enough to prevent him from taking the reins, perhaps his plain old corruption will.
As an organization that has fought against corruption and for transparency around the world, it is sobering to watch this unfold in the highest echelons of US leadership.
Last weekend, the New York Times published an explosive report on Pruitt’s corrupt dealings throughout the rise of his political career in Oklahoma. According to the Times, Pruitt traded favorable regulatory and policy outcomes for the oil and gas industry in exchange for discounted homes, and even a stake in a minor league baseball team. Despite his modest government salary of $38,400, Pruitt lived a life beyond his means – benefiting from the support of Oklahoma’s powerful oil and gas lobbyists.
Pruitt’s penchant for unethical behavior has flourished since coming to Washington. He is currently the subject of 10 investigations for inappropriate use of taxpayer money, as well as several other possible ethics violations. A few of the current claims against him include:
- Renting an apartment from the wife of an industry lobbyist for just $50 per night – well below the market rate in DC – and then meeting with that lobbyist.
- Providing raises to senior staff members using a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act over the objections of the White House – and then lying about it during an on-air interview.
- Spending over $43k on a soundproof privacy booth for his office without garnering necessary approvals for such an expense, which the Government Accountability Office concluded last week violated the law.
- Extensive security and travel expenses, including bringing government security on personal trips and spending thousands of dollars on first-class airline tickets.
- Violating an anti-lobbying law after urging industry groups to publicly support the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.
- Retaliations against whistleblowers who have spoken out against what they see as misuse of government funds – including firings and re-assignments.
These allegations are just the ones that have been made public, and there is certainly reason to believe that more instances of corruption are likely to emerge. Moreover, Pruitt continues to operate in secret, refusing to allow the press to cover major policy announcements or to share travel schedules; his staff frequently lie about his whereabouts. His approach to rule-making follows the same tack where transparency and accountability – essential for sound scientific policymaking – are ignored.
This obfuscation is an affront to transparency norms expected of a US public official, and the level of blatant corruption extends beyond anything else uncovered about a cabinet member in recent memory.
Nevertheless, we have arrived at this moment – where an individual like Pruitt has ascended to this position of power – because our government has long been captured by oil sector and other corporate elite. Despite the notion these types of things only happen in faraway places to “them” – this is happening here, to “us.” We cannot be so naïve as to think corruption is only a problem for Trump’s so-called “s**t-hole countries” ruled by caricatured dictators. The erosion of our democratic institutions have predictably brought us the headlines we see today, with more explicit impunity and graft in a single administration than we ever thought possible.
We cannot afford to be numb to it.
For decades, Oxfam has been a leading voice calling for greater transparency and accountability of governments and corporations, particularly the extractive industry We have fought to shine a light on the misconduct of corrupt officials. And we have stood in solidarity with local communities seeking to protect their rights to their public and natural resources, access to information, and lives free of oppression from powerful actors – whether corporations, governments, or individuals.
Congress does not always do the right thing when it comes to corruption. In fact, a majority voted last year to scrap the rule implementing a key anti-corruption law that would have provide crucial information that citizens in resource rich countries need to track revenue flows from oil, gas, and mining corporations to governments and detect corruption.
But this week, Congress has an opportunity use their oversight power to hold Pruitt to account, closer to home. This is bigger than one cabinet member or one agency; the credibility of our government is on the line. We must expect more of our public officials. Already, an unprecedented number of legislators have signed-on to a letter demanding that Pruitt resign. A number of our allies are leading the “Boot Pruitt” campaign, to call out his corrupt dealings, and demand he be held accountable.
Unfortunately, many in Congress still see no need for him to leave his job – and sadly the split is along party-lines. However, corruption shouldn’t be a partisan issue. These scandals are an insult to all those who serve in public office as well as all taxpaying Americans. There have been signs in recent days that signal Pruitt’s support may be waning on the Hill as well as in the White House. Senator Jim Inhofe, Pruitt’s staunchest defender in the Senate, said he was “troubled” by the NYT reports, and the White House is rumored to be “deterring [GOP] from defending Pruitt” – all accounts that could spell trouble for the EPA administrator.
We will be watching closely to see how the Congressional hearings play out, and we hope our leaders will take him to task, to prove that we do not believe corruption should happen here.