By Jeff Mason and Timothy Gardner
ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Thursday he would take a look into ethics allegations against Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt over his condo lease and other issues, but added the official was doing a “fantastic job.”
Pruitt has loyally executed Trump’s deregulatory agenda with plans to roll back Obama-era programs cutting emissions from power plants and vehicles. His efforts to slash regulations have helped make Trump popular in coal, natural gas, and oil-producing states.
“I think that Scott has done a fantastic job,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One after a trip to West Virginia. “I just left coal and energy country. They love Scott Pruitt.”
Still, Trump said he would make a determination about the ethics issues. The White House is probing Pruitt’s lease of a room in a high-end Washington neighborhood for $50 a night in a townhouse co-owned by the wife of energy industry lobbyist Steven Hart, who lobbies for companies regulated by the EPA.
Pruitt has told the Washington Examiner in an interview that he was “dumbfounded” his renting of the room in a townhouse was controversial and said his ethics officials reviewed the lease.
But the EPA’s ethics office suggested there still could be questions about Pruitt’s housing arrangement.
Pruitt, a vocal doubter of mainstream climate change science, also is facing criticism for frequent first-class air travel, spending on costly items in his office, including a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth, and for a trip to Morocco in which he promoted U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas.
While Trump appears to support Pruitt, the president can be fickle. Last autumn, Trump said he had confidence in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, even after their relationship was strained by differences of opinion on Iran and Russia policy. Trump fired Tillerson in March.
‘APPEARANCE OF FAVORITISM’
In late March, the EPA’s ethics office cleared Pruitt of accepting an illegal gift from a lobbyist with the condo lease, saying a number of other rooms nearby were available for rent for a similar or lower price.
But the office issued a memo, dated on Wednesday and seen by Reuters, that the earlier review did not consider whether Pruitt had violated other ethics rules with the lease.
Kevin Minoli, a top ethics official in the EPA’s Office of General Counsel, said in the memo that the review did not address issues such as a rule requiring officials to avoid behavior that could result in their impartiality being questioned.
“It is important to note that the federal ethics regulations regarding impartiality apply regardless of whether something involves receiving a prohibited gift,” he wrote.
In a separate statement about the memo, Minoli said it explained the ethical issues beyond the scope of the original review.
The impartiality rule requires that government officials avoid doing things that could create an “appearance of favoritism in government decision-making,” according to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.
In the memo, first reported by CNN, Minoli also said he did not have access to enough information to determine whether Pruitt’s actual use of the townhouse was consistent with the lease.
Trump’s support for Pruitt, which he also voiced on Tuesday, comes even as U.S. lawmakers, including three fellow Republicans, called for his resignation over the ethics questions.
More questions surfaced as Trump commented on Pruitt. Five EPA officials were reassigned, demoted or requested new jobs over the past year after they complained about Pruitt’s spending, a report by the New York Times said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Jeff Mason; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)