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EPA's Pruitt accused of 'serious violation' of ethics laws

In the race for the most ethically challenged member of Trump's cabinet, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is the new frontrunner. The culture of corruption lives.
In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)
In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla.

In many ways, Donald Trump's entire administration is one cringe-worthy ethics mess, with multiple, ongoing investigations. Choosing the most controversial member of the president's team is surprisingly challenging, and it's easy to make a compelling case for Ryan Zinke, Ben Carson, Steven Mnuchin, among others.

But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, already burdened by a wide variety of scandals, is almost certainly the new frontrunner in the race for the most ethically challenged cabinet member. Indeed, following up on Rachel's segment last night on the Oklahoma Republican, Bloomberg Politics reports today on the EPA chief's cartoonish levels of corruption.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's lease at a Washington apartment owned by a lobbyist friend allowed him to pay $50 a night for a single bedroom -- but only on the nights when he actually slept there.White House officials are growing dismayed about the questions surrounding Pruitt's living arrangement, including his initial inability to produce any documentation about his lease or his actual payments, according to three officials. The landlord provided EPA officials with a copy of the lease and proof of the payments Pruitt made.

Let's back up and provide some context, because this one's a doozy.

ABC News reported yesterday on a first-class trip Pruitt took to Morocco late last year -- it cost $40,000 and you paid for it -- in order to have the EPA chief pitch "the potential benefit of liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports on Morocco's economy."

Now, I can't speak with any authority about the potential benefits of LNG, but I do know that this is far outside Pruitt's job description. After all, he leads the Environmental Protection Agency, which has nothing to do with making economic energy recommendations to foreign countries.

And at first blush, this might already look like the kind of controversy that would do real harm to Pruitt's career. Cabinet officials shouldn't take $40,000 first-class foreign trips in order to do work that has nothing to do with their responsibilities.

But what makes this story so much worse is the second half of the controversy. As ABC News added, "Cheniere Energy Inc. owned the only active Liquid Natural Gas export plant in the United States at the time."

Why is that important? Because for much of 2017, Pruitt "occupied prime real estate in a townhouse near the U.S. Capitol that is co-owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist, property records from 2017 show."

The lobbyist's firm specifically lobbies on liquid natural gas exports.

Pruitt's rent, we now know, was $50 a night, which as anyone who's ever traveled to Washington, D.C., knows, isn't exactly the going rate for accommodations in popular areas.

Norm Eisen, the chief ethics lawyer in the Obama White House, described the new allegations surrounding the EPA chief as a "serious violation" of ethics laws.

The question shouldn't be whether Scott Pruitt will keep his job, but rather, whether or not he should be looking for a good defense attorney.

Postscript: Twelve years ago, with Republicans controlling the White House, the Senate, and the House, Democrats had a fair amount of success running against the GOP’s “culture of corruption.”

The party may want to consider dusting off that playbook.