By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt may not survive long in his job after reports that he paid below market rate to live in a condo owned by a lobbyist who deals with issues overseen by his agency, lawmakers and a former Trump official said in television interviews on Sunday.
On Friday, ABC News and Bloomberg News reported that during Pruitt’s first six months in Washington last year, he made a deal to pay about $50 a night – less than a third the price of similar properties – to rent a room in a Capitol Hill neighborhood condo building co-owned by energy industry lobbyist Steven Hart and his wife.
“I don’t know how you survive this one, and if he has to go, it’s because he never should have been there in the first place, said Chris Christie, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, on Sunday on ABC News’ This Week program.
Christie was for a short time the head of President Donald Trump’s transition team and has previously raised concerns that many political appointments had not been vetted for such conflicts of interest.
ABC later reported that Pruitt’s daughter also used the apartment in 2017 during her tenure as a White House summer intern, which Hart’s wife said was not agreed in their lease.
Pruitt declined comment on the reports. The White House referred reporters to the EPA, which said the arrangement had been cleared by the agency’s ethics officials.
Pruitt has already faced public criticism for his frequent use of first-class flights, which is under investigation by the EPA Inspector General, and installing a $43,000 secure phone booth to conduct confidential calls.
He “may be on his way out” after the latest reports, said Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama later on the same ABC News show.
“I think he’s in real trouble,” said Jones. “People are just frustrated with Cabinet members who seem to want to use taxpayer dollars to fund their own personal lifestyle.”
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended the arrangement in an email on Friday.
“As EPA career ethics officials stated in a memo, Administrator Pruitt’s housing arrangement for both himself and family was not a gift and the lease was consistent with federal ethics regulations,” he said.
That memo by Kevin Minoli, the designated EPA ethics official, said such arrangements were not considered “gifts” if a federal official pays market value for them.
“Under the terms of the lease, if the space was utilized for one 30-day month, then the rental cost would be $1,500, which is a reasonable market price,” the memo said.
Local real estate websites show that the average market price for a similar property in the area is at least three times as much.
Hart’s firm represents companies regulated by EPA including Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co, shale producer Concho Resources Inc, ExxonMobil Corp and liquefied natural gas (LNG) company Cheniere Energy Inc.
Travel records obtained through a public records request show that Pruitt spent over $17,000 in taxpayer money for a December trip to Morocco to promote U.S. exports of LNG. Marketing U.S. LNG is not the jurisdiction of the EPA administrator.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Palm Beach, Florida; Editing by Bill Rigby)