MSNBC's Hugh Hewitt dismisses the scandal over Scott Pruitt's condo rental

MSNBC's Hugh Hewitt dismisses the scandal over Scott Pruitt's condo rental

Hewitt, whose son was hired by Pruitt as a press secretary, has been a staunch defender of the EPA chief

Blog ››› ››› KEVIN KALHOEFER


Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

UPDATE (4/4): Scott Pruitt hired Hugh Hewitt's son, James Hewitt, as a press secretary at the EPA by exploiting a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act -- a move that ethics experts have criticized, according to The Washington Post. Pruitt used this same loophole to make other hires, and to give raises to two aides against the wishes of the White House. Hewitt's son previously worked at Dezenhall Resources Ltd., a public relations firm that has run campaigns attacking environmental groups including Greenpeace. Hugh Hewitt mounted another defense of Pruitt on his radio show on April 4, dismissing the scandals surrounding the EPA chief as "nonsense."

Original article below.

Over the past few days, MSNBC personality and radio host Hugh Hewitt has defended EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s rental of a condo co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist, falsely claiming that Pruitt paid market rate for the condo and dismissing ethical concerns many experts have raised about the arrangement. Hewitt’s defense of the rental arrangement is in line with his track record of defending Pruitt from criticism.

Hewitt defended Pruitt’s ethically dubious $50-a-night lease

On March 30, ABC News reported that Pruitt had “worked directly with a top energy lobbyist, and without a real estate broker, to set up a $50-a-night rental room in a prime Capitol Hill building co-owned by the lobbyist’s wife during his first six months in Washington.” Under the arrangement, Pruitt paid to rent out one bedroom only on the nights he spent at the condo, even though no other renters stayed in the unit when he was out of town.

On April 1, Hewitt took to Twitter to defend Pruitt’s leasing setup as “quite common” and dismiss it as a “non-story.”

Hewitt also claimed that the condo was rented to Pruitt at market rate during a Twitter argument with MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle and Republican political consultant Matthew Dowd:

On April 2, Hewitt appeared on MSNBC Live to claim that Pruitt’s condo lease was appropriate and that criticism of the arrangement was politically motivated: “It is not in any way, shape, or form a gift. It’s much ado about nothing. I think this is really about policy, Stephanie, as we talked about on Twitter, and I think it’s about the [Federal Vacancies Reform Act]. Specifically, people on the left are upset with Scott Pruitt over the Clean Power Plan, which he repealed; the Waters of the United States [WOTUS], which he repealed; the [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards today, which he put up for repeal. He’s executing Donald Trump’s policy on WOTUS and on regulatory rollback, and they want him out.”

Pruitt’s $50-a-night rental was well below market rate for similar units

Pruitt paid $6,100 over the duration of his six-month stay in the Capitol Hill condo, roughly $1,000 a month. The rate was well below what Pruitt paid for similar housing after he left the condo, as The Washington Post reported:

After leaving the Capitol Hill condo co-owned by Vicki Hart in July, Pruitt moved to a one-bedroom apartment in an upscale complex in the U Street neighborhood, according to an official with knowledge of the move. One-bedroom units in the building run about $3,000 to $3,500 monthly.

Several months later, he moved again, signing another lease in a new luxury apartment complex back on Capitol Hill. One-bedroom apartments in the building, which is owned by a large development company, start at about $3,100 per month and go to nearly $4,500.

ABC News also revealed that Pruitt’s daughter stayed in the second bedroom in the condo for the duration of her White House internship from May to August, during which time Pruitt should have been paying a two-bedroom rate.

As The Associated Press reported, “Current rental listings for two-bedroom apartments in the [Capitol Hill] neighborhood show they typically go for far more than what Pruitt paid. A two bedroom townhome on the same block as the one leased by Pruitt was advertised for rent on Monday at $3,750 a month. Another two-bedroom unit on the next block was advertised as available for $4,740 a month.”

Numerous ethics experts have questioned Pruitt’s condo lease

Despite Hewitt’s assertion that Pruitt’s leasing arrangement was aboveboard, a number of ethics experts expressed concern over Pruitt’s $50-a-night rental.

Bryson Morgan, the former investigative counsel at the U.S. House of Representatives Office of Congressional Ethics, said of Pruitt’s lease, “I think it certainly creates a perception problem, especially if Mr. Hart is seeking to influence the agency. That’s why there is a gift rule.”

After the EPA issued a retroactive ethics approval for Pruitt’s rental arrangement on Friday, Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called the ruling “highly unusual” and questioned the logic of the agency's opinion, ABC reported.

On the March 31 episode of CNN’s New Day Saturday, Water Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said the lease was a gift and the EPA’s ethics ruling left “unanswered questions,” and he debunked many of the EPA’s explanations:

CHRISTI PAUL (ANCHOR): Now, again, an EPA official told CNN the ethics counsel reviewed this living arrangement, that the ethics issue was not one because he paid rent, they say, and that the landlord was considered a friend and by law, quote, "does not ban federal employees from receiving a gift from a friend." Do you give any credence to those conclusions?

WALTER SHAUB (CNN CONTRIBUTOR): No, that's silly. And in fact, the EPA released a memo yesterday that was dated yesterday. Pruitt did not go to the EPA ethics office and get advice in advance as to whether this was appropriate. This story broke, and then the EPA tried to come up with a post hoc rationalization, and the rationalization is preposterous.

They don't actually rely on the alleged friendship, and they really can't because the lobbyist told the press yesterday that they're merely casual friends. That would not meet the standard for an exception of the gift rule based on very close personal relationships where you get a gift under circumstances that it's absolutely clear that the gift was solely motivated by the relationship.

But the justification they tried to offer which just has about everybody in Washington who's ever looked for an apartment chuckling is the idea that it's perfectly normal in this town to get a prime location -- and this house really is that, it’s right next to the House/Senate office building on Capitol Hill, for $50 a night -- and the owner will hold the house open for you for the -- any night that you don't use it. He won't rent it to anybody else, but you only have to pay for the nights that you actually stay there at well below market rate. There's no doubt that this is a gift and that this is below market rate, and so, the EPA's justification doesn't wash.

On April 2, The New York Times reported that the EPA signed off on a pipeline project linked to the lobbyist whose wife owned the condo, raising questions about whether there was a connection between the agency’s action and the condo rental. From the Times article:

Government ethics experts said that the correlation between the E.P.A.’s action and Mr. Pruitt’s lease arrangement — he was renting from the wife of the head of the lobbying firm Williams & Jensen — illustrates why such ties to industry players can generate questions for public officials: Even if no specific favors were asked for or granted, it can create an appearance of a conflict.

“Entering into this arrangement causes a reasonable person to question the integrity of the E.P.A. decision,” said Don Fox, who served as general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics during parts of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

Hewitt has a history of defending the EPA administrator

Hewitt’s defense of Pruitt's rental arrangement is just the latest instance of the radio host and MSNBC personality dismissing the EPA administrator’s scandals (of which there are many).   

For example, after news broke last year about Pruitt spending $58,000 on charter and military flights, Hewitt defended that expense on the September 29 episode of MTP Daily:

HUGH HEWITT: I want to push back on Pruitt, and -- I don’t know Zinke yet -- but I've studied everything about Pruitt because I'm interested in the EPA and my son works there.

Those four trips, all preapproved by the [EPA's Office of General Counsel]. He was going to the bottom of Oklahoma in one of them to meet with stakeholders that President Obama never cared about: small farmers, small plot holders, wetland people. It was the Waters of the United States Rule rollback. By all means, throw some attention on that.

Earlier that day, Hewitt also defended Pruitt on his radio show, arguing that efforts to condemn Pruitt for his travel are “a dry hole.”

And in March of this year, after additional stories broke about Pruitt’s expensive travel habits, Hewitt attributed criticism of Pruitt’s travel to an “anti-Trump” bias in the media.

Additionally, when Pruitt received some of his most negative press coverage of 2017, after he denied the scientific consensus on human-made climate change on CNBC, Hewitt provided cover for Pruitt by having him on his radio show and declaring, "I know you are not a climate denier."

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change, Ethics
Network/Outlet
MSNBC, CNN
Person
Hugh Hewitt, Scott Pruitt, Stephanie Ruhle
Show/Publication
MSNBC Live, New Day Saturday
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.