I’m starting to think that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt might not be the world’s greatest public servant.
Pruitt is currently facing at least 10 investigations, which would be a record if any Cabinet secretary before was so devoid of shame that they tried to survive this many scandals.
Pruitt is not just dipping his snout in the government trough; he’s literally bathing in it.
Since there’s not enough newspaper ink in Boston for me to capture all of his excesses, here’s an abbreviated rundown.
Pruitt has a 24-hour security detail that has cost taxpayers, to date, $3 million. Security has accompanied him, not just on official travel, but also trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl. Pruitt even asked that sirens be used to help him get through routine traffic in Washington. When his security head demurred on this request, which is generally only done for the president, Pruitt had him replaced.
Upon taking office, Pruitt gave aides a list of a dozen foreign locales he wanted to visit and asked them to find official reasons for him to go.
Pruitt enlisted lobbyists to arrange some of the trips, including ones to Australia and Morocco to promote natural gas exports, the latter of which is under investigation because the EPA doesn’t actually oversee gas exports.
When Pruitt has traveled, he’s regularly flown first class or used military jets — and stayed in fancy, expensive hotels. One trip to Italy, which included four hours of meetings and five hours of non-work related dinners, ran up a price tag of $120,000.
When he wasn’t gallivanting around the world, Pruitt regularly traveled to his home state of Oklahoma on the taxpayer’s dime. When he was living in Washington, he rented a condo for $50 a night from an energy lobbyist who had business before the EPA — and got so far behind on his rent that the landlord changed the locks on him.
He signed off on large pay raises for two of his closest aides — and then lied about it in a Fox News interview.
Pruitt also allegedly pushed out of the agency or demoted whistleblowers and those who have questioned his extravagant spending. And he’s gone to great lengths to cover his tracks. His staff doesn’t release his calendar, information about his speaking engagements, or most foreign trips until after they are completed; and he doesn’t hold press conferences and actively tries to limit question-and-answer sessions at his public events to those he considers “friendly.”
And as if all that is not enough — he spent $43,000 to have a soundproof booth installed in his office.
Oh, and then there’s that whole protection of the environment, which is nominally Pruitt’s job. Since taking over the EPA, he has overseen a full-scale assault on long-standing environmental laws. He’s encouraged industry groups to lobby against regulations that harm their businesses, which is being looked into as a possible ethics violation. He’s replaced scientists from science advisory committees with industry representatives (he’s being investigated for that, too). The person he named to lead the EPA’s Superfund program is a former banker who has been banned from the banking industry for life.
This, of course, is the biggest Pruitt scandal — that a man who believes that climate change is not real, and has never met an environmental regulation he supports, is heading the agency responsible for protecting the environment.
But let’s put aside, for a second, Pruitt’s extreme views on the future of the planet and safeguarding natural resources. In any other administration, a public official with a fraction of Pruitt’s scandals would have been forced to step down months ago. Shame alone would have been enough of a lever for Pruitt to resign. But as his recent congressional testimony showed, in which he blamed underlings for his myriad ethical lapses, Pruitt is impervious to shame or accountability.
However, Pruitt’s stubborn ability to keep his job is an even greater indictment of the president he works for — and the extraordinary disrespect he demonstrates regularly toward the American people. Those who work in the federal government have a responsibility to act ethically, to not take advantage of their position and to avoid even the appearance that they are profiting directly from public service. When they step over the line, even slightly, they need to be reprimanded. When they try to erase the line — as Pruitt has consistently done — they need to be fired.
Instead, Trump has defended Pruitt, because he’s carrying out the president’s anti-regulatory agenda. Considering that the president is financially profiting from the highest office in the land and is using that position to promote his business and feather his nest, Trump’s indifference toward Pruitt’s venality is not surprising. But that someone as ethically and scientifically challenged as Scott Pruitt has been able to survive is an insult to the American people.
An administration that took seriously the concept of public service — and its responsibilities to basic ethical standards — would have unceremoniously dumped Pruitt months ago. Instead, he’ll likely have plenty more opportunities to check foreign destinations he wants to visit off his wish list.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.