A legal defense fund for Pruitt compounds ethics concerns

Accepting donations could add to the scandals already plaguing the EPA head.

 

This article was originally published on Mother Jones and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing investigations into his housing arrangements with a lobbyist, his travel expenses, and his security detail. He has authorized raises for staff in spite of being told not to by the White House, and allegedly retaliated against EPA whistleblowers. This adds up to at least 11 audits and investigations from the Office of Inspector General and Government Accountability Office, with more news of his ethical lapses seeming to break every day. In order to address these problems, according to the New York Times, the former Oklahoma attorney general has decided he is going to need extra help from a private legal defense fund. 

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt in 2017.

Most onlookers would agree that Pruitt probably does need some legal help. A lawyer himself, having practiced decades ago before his career in politics, he has nonetheless found himself ensnared in problems of his own making—for example, his own ethics office did not have full information about his questionable living arrangement until after they were made public.

Legal defense funds aren’t that unusual: The Clintons used them, and they’ve cropped up again in the Trump administration to help defray the costs for officials and campaign staffers in Robert Mueller’s investigation.

But as the head environmental regulator, Pruitt having a legal defense fund raises even more questions for government ethics experts, who have trouble envisioning how he will accept donations without creating another ethical mess. “Any time Pruitt has an opportunity to use public office for private gain, I would raise a red flag,” says Kathleen Clark, legal ethics professor at the Washington University in St. Louis.

One of the basic questions is where the money for this fund would come from. “The usual suspects (are) the people who shouldn’t donate, people with a stake before the EPA,” Clark added. “So who else is going to do this? There are restrictions on the ability of government officials to accept anything of value from people who are regulated by their agency. Especially in light of Pruitt’s history of getting things of value from those who have a stake in government action, there’s even more reason to be concerned about a legal defense fund set up for him.”

Pruitt’s base would likely be eager to help, but this presents another snag. His staunchest supporters hail from the fossil fuel industry, which would be considered a “prohibited source.” And the Office of Government Ethics decided last fall that anonymous donations aren’t allowed for funds set up for government employees.

Protestors march against Scott Pruitt's nomination to lead the EPA in 2017.

“OGE has given some guidance on legal defense funds. Pruitt cannot accept gifts from prohibited sources (entities with business before the agency), and he should not accept gifts from anonymous sources,” Virginia Canter, executive branch counsel for Citizens for Responsibility Ethics in Washington (CREW), says. “He also should be reporting all donations received by his (legal defense fund), and gifts that exceed $375 are required to be reported as part of his public financial disclosure report.”

The fund has not been set up yet, and many of the details of how he will do it are still unclear. If Pruitt sets one up in his name or has someone set it up for him, it could involve different rules and different types of tax status. Robert Rizzi, a tax lawyer with experience in legal defense funds, notes that there is no standard format that Pruitt would follow. “Each of these types of funds can raise tax issues for the entity, the donors, and the beneficiary, and also can raise potential government ethics issues if the beneficiaries are federal employees.”

In the end, CREW’s Canter thinks the most unusual aspect of Pruitt’s legal defense fund is that he needs one at all. 

“Legal defense funds can be expensive and difficult to maintain due to extensive screening, compliance, and reporting requirements,” Canter notes. “From that perspective alone, he would be better of resigning.”

Rebecca Leber is a reporter in Mother Jones’ D.C. bureau, where she covers environmental politics and policy. Reach her at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • DEVELOMENT DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is seeking a qualified Development Director to manage the fundraising success of our growing organization, including the team-driven implementation of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...