Scott Pruitt, Trump’s E.P.A. Chief, Resigns Under Cloud of Ethics Scandals

Source: By Coral Davenport, New York Times • Posted: Friday, July 6, 2018

As the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt had been dogged by ethics questions.Tom Brenner/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, resigned after facing months of allegations over legal and ethical violations.

Mr. Trump announced the resignation in a tweet on Thursday in which he thanked Mr. Pruitt for an “outstanding job” and said the agency’s deputy, Andrew Wheeler, would take over as the acting administrator on Monday.

Mr. Pruitt had been hailed as a hero among conservatives for his zealous deregulation, but he could not overcome the stain of numerous ethics questions about his alleged spending abuses, first-class travel and cozy relationships with lobbyists. Earlier on Thursday, The New York Times reported on new questions about whether aides to Mr. Pruitt had deleted sensitive information about his meetings from his public schedule, potentially in violation of the law.

Mr. Pruitt also came under fire for enlisting aides to obtain special favors for him and his family, such as reaching out to the chief executive of Chick-fil-A, Dan T. Cathy, with the intent of helping Mr. Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn, open a franchise of the restaurant.

Mr. Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who built his career on lawsuits against the agencyhe would eventually lead, remained a favorite of Mr. Trump’s for the majority of his tenure at the E.P.A. He began the largest regulatory rollback in the agency’s history, undoing, delaying or blocking several Obama-era environmental rules. Among them was a suite of historic regulations aimed at mitigating global warming pollution from the United States’ vehicles and power plants.

Mr. Pruitt also played a lead role in urging Mr. Trump to follow through on his campaign pledge to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, despite warnings from some of the president’s other senior advisers that the move could damage the United States’ credibility in foreign policy. Under the landmark accord, nearly every country had committed to reducing emissions of planet-warming fossil fuel pollution.

The E.P.A.’s deputy administrator, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who shares Mr. Pruitt’s zeal to dismantle climate change regulations, will act as the agency’s leader until a new administrator is nominated by Mr. Trump and confirmed by the Senate.

In 2017, Mr. Pruitt made headlines for questioning the established science of human-caused climate change, contradicting decades of research by scientific institutions, including his own agency. Although Mr. Pruitt was harshly criticized for the remarks, they did not affect his good standing with a president who has also mocked climate science.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly told associates that Mr. Pruitt has done what he has wanted in terms of cutting regulations, so he has been reluctant to let him go. Mr. Pruitt has made himself available to the president as a confidant as well as a possible next attorney general.

But White House advisers for months have implored Mr. Trump to get rid of Mr. Pruitt, including his chief of staff, John F. Kelly. Ultimately, the president grew disillusioned with Mr. Pruitt after a cascade of accusations of impropriety and ethical missteps overshadowed Mr. Pruitt’s policy achievements.

In recent days, people who have spoken with Mr. Trump said he sounds exasperated with his EPA administrator’s negative headlines. “It’s one thing after another with this guy,” one person close to Mr. Trump quoted the president as saying.

Mr. Pruitt is the subject of at least 13 federal investigations, and a government watchdog agency concluded that he had broken the law with his purchase of a $43,000 secure telephone booth. He was also under investigation for his 2017 lease of a bedroom in a condominium linked to a Canadian energy company’s powerful Washington lobbying firm, and for accusations that he demoted or sidelined E.P.A. employees who questioned his actions.

The former E.P.A. administrator had come under criticism for lavish expenditures on foreign travel, including a trip arranged for him by a lobbyist to Morocco, a country where the E.P.A. has no policy agenda. His domestic travel also came under fire after a former staff member told congressional investigators that his boss often sought to travel to Oklahoma, where Mr. Pruitt owns a home, directing his employees to “find me something to do” there so he could justify charging taxpayers for the expense.

A New York Times report detailed Mr. Pruitt’s lavish spending and questionable practices in his home state.

While Democrats have criticized Mr. Pruitt since his nomination, in recent months even conservative Republicans had taken the unusual step of criticizing and questioning his ethics. Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina and the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has started an investigation into Mr. Pruitt’s actions at the E.P.A., the first such Republican-led inquiry into a Trump administration cabinet member.

On May 2, Mr. Gowdy’s staff began conducting transcribed, behind-closed-doors interviews with Mr. Pruitt’s closest aides. Partial transcripts from one of those interviews revealed that Mr. Pruitt used one of his top aides last year essentially as a personal assistant, having her help him search for an apartment as well as try to procure a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel.

In addition, Mr. Pruitt faced irritation from the White House after The Atlantic magazine reported that Mr. Pruitt’s office gave raises to two aides, even though the White House had declined to approve the raises.

The E.P.A. has denied any wrongdoing on Mr. Pruitt’s behalf. But in May, several members of his senior staff resigned, and many more top employees are said to be considering leaving.

It remains unclear how well some aspects of Mr. Pruitt’s regulatory rollback agenda, and his effort to undo the environmental work of his predecessors, will stand the test of time. In his haste to cripple government regulation and publicize his success, Mr. Pruitt and his officials have failed to follow important procedures, and courts have already struck down at least six of his rollback efforts.

His removal will deal a blow to his political aspirations. People close to Mr. Pruitt have said that he had been using his prominence in the Trump administration to position himself for a run for state office in Oklahoma. His sights, some said, were set on a possible presidential run in 2024.

Instead, Mr. Pruitt is now the latest in Mr. Trump’s purge of top administration officials.

Emily Cochrane and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.