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During his most recent MSNBC program, host Hugh Hewitt defended the anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in its fight with Amazon. But Hewitt did not disclose that ADF is a major sponsor of his radio programs.
Hewitt has had prior conflict of interest problems on MSNBC. The network gave him a “verbal warning” last month after Politico revealed that he helped broker a meeting between Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt and lawyers at Hewitt’s law firm Larson O’Brien. MSNBC said that Hewitt, who frequently praised the EPA head on the network, will no longer discuss matters related to the EPA and Pruitt on its channel.
Media Matters also previously reported that Hewitt used his MSNBC program to praise the Trump administration's efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act. However, he didn’t disclose that one of his law firm’s clients is an oil and gas company that is currently litigating allegations it violated the environmental law.
Hewitt’s latest conflict of interest problem revolves around the anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, which works domestically and internationally to prevent and roll back LGBTQ equality. ADF has supported a number of extreme positions, including criminalizing sodomy and Russia's so-called “gay propaganda” law. ADF recently defended the plaintiff in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case, which was narrowly decided in its favor based on the particulars of the case (and which does not indicate how other similar cases should be resolved).
During his June 2 MSNBC program, Hewitt interviewed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who criticized Amazon’s decision (McCarthy mistakenly called the group “the Alliance for Freedom”). Hewitt replied: “Yeah, Alliance Defending Freedom, old friends of mine. I’ve often spoken at their groups, and [you’re] right. They’ve been kicked off Amazon Smile. That’s wrong.”
But Hewitt did not disclose that he has a financial relationship with ADF through radio sponsorships.
ADF is a sponsor of Salem Radio Network’s The Hugh Hewitt Show. An advertisement for ADF currently appears on Hewitt’s website (under the title “Your Freedoms Are Under Attack”) that directs readers to an ADF donation page that features a testimonial from Hewitt. Here's a screenshot of the ADF donation page:
On October 30, 2017, Hewitt hosted Alliance Defending Freedom CEO and general counsel Mike Farris to discuss the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. Hewitt stated during the segment: “ADF has been a regular feature on this show for many decades here, a great sponsor of the program. And more importantly, they’re my friends and I trust them, and I’ve been at many, many ADF gatherings over the years.”
In November 2017, Hewitt’s Facebook page included an ad for ADF. Hewitt’s donation pitch stated, in part: “Right now, a generous group of Ministry Friends has decided to match your gift to provide a strong legal defense for Christians trying to live out their faith. Will you help today? Visit: www.ADFlegal.org/hewitt.”
ADF is also a significant sponsor of Salem Radio Network’s Townhall Review, a weekend recap program that Hewitt hosts. Hewitt has said on recent programs that Townhall Review has a "partnership" with ADF. Ads for ADF also appear on Townhall Review's website.
Hewitt also criticized Amazon for its ADF decision during a segment that appeared on Townhall Review. Hewitt stated on May 22: “I’ve partnered with ADF for over a decade now. That’s why I was disturbed to learn that they have been removed from Amazon’s Smile program. … ADF -- see them online at ADFlegal.org -- is donor supported, so they could very much benefit from that income stream.”
MSNBC did not respond to a request for comment from Media Matters.
After Ivanka’s trademarks were approved, President Trump promised to “save jobs” at ZTE, a Chinese telecom that traded with Iran and North Korea. Ivanka then got more trademarks.
On May 28, The New York Times reported that Ivanka Trump received seven new trademarks from the Chinese government six days before her father, President Donald Trump, “vowed to find a way” to save Chinese telecommunications company ZTE from bankruptcy. Fox News has yet to cover the story.
The Times article noted, “Even as Mr. Trump contends with Beijing on issues like security and trade, his family and the company that bears his name are trying to make money off their brand in China’s flush and potentially promising market.” According to experts, “the timing appeared to be a coincidence, given how quickly Ms. Trump won her previous trademark requests from the Chinese authorities,” but one of the experts quoted in the piece noted, “From application to registration, this is very fast.” Another expert disagreed on the speed, but acknowledged that Ivanka’s position and fame likely played a role in the approval process. And according to American ethics experts, the trademarks, along with the family’s existing businesses in China, suggest that Chinese officials may be giving the president’s daughter “extra consideration” because she’s “the president’s daughter — a person who also works in the White House.” The trademarks are potentially worth millions.
Trump’s action to “save jobs” at ZTE came after the Chinese telecommunications company was “left paralyzed after American officials forbade companies in the United States” from selling goods to ZTE, after the company violated U.S. trade controls on Iran and North Korea. The American intelligence community has also warned that ZTE products “may pose an unacceptable risk” of espionage. Ivanka Trump was granted an additional two trademarks eight days after the president’s announcement.
Unlike other networks, Fox News has yet to find time to cover the Times story published yesterday. But it has discussed the following about the president’s daughter:
Trump’s orbit, from campaign to the presidency, is certainly not short on corruption and scandal, and this is not the first such story that Fox News has ignored or downplayed. The network has dutifully and reliably downplayed story after story -- usually related to the Russia investigation(s) -- that puts the president in a bad light.
Under Pruitt, EPA feeds tips to right-wing outlets, gets fawning coverage
Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency has developed a remarkably cozy relationship with two conservative outlets: The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon.
While many other news outlets have been aggressively covering the myriad scandals dogging Pruitt, The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon have gone above and beyond to defend Pruitt from charges of unethical behavior and try to discredit sources of damaging information, often by using mysteriously obtained internal EPA documents. Pruitt has also given exclusive interviews to The Daily Caller and used it as a platform for issuing policy announcements. In essence, The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon are serving as de facto press offices for the EPA.
This follows a pattern Media Matters has documented of Pruitt giving interviews or information to right-wing outlets and receiving favorable coverage from them. We found that in his first year at EPA, Pruitt gave more than twice as many interviews to Fox News as to the other major cable and broadcast networks combined, and Fox gave significantly less coverage to Pruitt's scandals than did other cable news channels.
Mainstream reporters and outlets, in contrast, have been repeatedly attacked and stymied by Pruitt's EPA. The New York Times recently revealed that the agency categorizes media outlets as “friendly” or “unfriendly” and selectively chooses to talk to reporters who it believes will provide positive, uncritical coverage.
After numerous news stories emerged about Pruitt’s exorbitant travel costs, the Free Beacon ran a March 21 article headlined “Obama EPA Administrators Spent Eight Times More Than Pruitt on International Travel.” The article cited “internal EPA documents provided to the Washington Free Beacon” -- which, according to Emily Atkin of The New Republic, came from EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox. The Free Beacon reported that the documents “reveal Obama administration EPA administrators jet setting cost taxpayers roughly $1 million. The EPA has spent $124,000 for Pruitt and his security detail to travel to the G-7 summit in Italy and a trip to Morocco.” But Atkin pointed out the many ways in which the comparison is “laughably inadequate" or "shockingly dishonest” -- including the fact that it compares one year of Pruitt's travel to eight years of his predecessors' travel and ignores domestic travel, which in Pruitt's case has included numerous first-class flights.
The Free Beacon again defended Pruitt’s travel after a May 7 Daily Beast article described his June 2017 trip to Italy as more focused on tourism than business, based on his recently released schedule. On May 9, the Free Beacon disputed that charge, stating, “New details of Scott Pruitt's trip to Italy to attend the G-7 summit last summer undermine media reports painting the Environmental Protection Agency administrator's trip as a lavish tourist vacation. … Pruitt's schedule, obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, reveals the four-day trip was heavy on business dealings.”
The May 9 Free Beacon article also addressed reports about Pruitt meeting during the trip with Australian Cardinal George Pell, a climate denier who was facing sexaul abuse allegations at the time and was subsequently charged. The Free Beacon claimed that Pruitt had only met with Pell “incidentally” and knew nothing about the charges. But New York Times reporter Eric Lipton called those claims “wrong” and pointed out that EPA staff began planning for the dinner with Pell in May 2017 and were aware that Pell was under investigation when they vetted the meeting.
None of these articles in the Washington Free Beacon noted how the publication obtained internal EPA documents, nor did any of the similar articles published in The Daily Caller. Mainstream news outlets, in contrast, typically note how they obtain such documents.
Kevin Chmielewski, a former Trump campaign staffer, served as a politically appointed deputy chief of staff to Pruitt until he was placed on administrative leave without pay and eventually fired from the agency in March 2018, after raising concerns about Pruitt’s lavish spending. In April 2018, Chmielewski met with Democratic lawmakers’ staff and appeared on ABC's World News Tonight to detail a wide range of ethical abuses by Pruitt.
Both The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon published articles that aimed to discredit Chmielewski by citing another former EPA staffer, anonymous sources, and EPA documents.
Shortly after Chmielewski presented his allegations of wasteful spending and unethical behavior to lawmakers’ staff, The Daily Caller published an April 23 article headlined, “SOURCES: Most Of What EPA’s Leaker Told Dems About Scott Pruitt Is ‘False,’” which cited “sources familiar with EPA’s inner-workings” and quoted an anonymous source saying of Chmielewski’s claims, “more than 60 percent is false, the other 40 percent is information he distorted.”
On May 7, Pruitt’s former security chief, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, gave his first interview since resigning from the EPA to The Daily Caller. According to multiple reports, Perrotta played an important role in justifying much of the EPA chief’s exorbitant spending. In the interview, Perrotta dismissed the barrage of negative stories about Pruitt as the product of a few “disgruntled employees,” and singled out Chmielewski in particular for criticism, accusing him of retaliating against the EPA over pay-related issues and spreading “false” information. The next week, on May 14, The Daily Caller published portions of a memo that Perrotta wrote in January detailing two phone calls he had with Chmielewski. According to The Daily Caller, the memo showed that “Chmielewski threatened to ‘retaliate’ against Administrator Scott Pruitt and others over a pay dispute.”
The Washington Free Beacon took aim at Chmielewski in an April 27 article that accused him of inflating his military service on his résumé and “benefi[ting] from the same EPA hiring authority that he said EPA officials had used to dole out raises to two top Pruitt aides, according to knowledgeable sources and EPA documents.” The Free Beacon followed up with a May 7 article that cited “several administration officials and two people who worked with [Chmielewski] on the campaign” to claim that Chmielewski had “a long history of run-ins with law enforcement, including a warning from a Secret Service detail, debt problems and other red flags that could have sunk his mandatory background check.” The New York Times had previously reported that Chmielewski was placed on administrative leave without pay after he and others confronted Pruitt about his unusually large spending, according to “two of the people with knowledge of the situation.” But the Free Beacon instead claimed that Chmielewski was forced out of the EPA because of questions about his background and an occasional inability of EPA staff to locate him while he was assumed to be doing advance work.
The Daily Caller has frequently tried to rebut negative stories about Pruitt and his staff by citing EPA emails, anonymous sources, and statements from EPA spokespeople that did not appear in other outlets. Here are a few that Media Matters has identified in recent weeks:
April 19: After The Associated Press published an article, “EPA chief sat in coach when not flying on taxpayer’s dime,” The Daily Caller ran a piece criticizing the headline and quoting an EPA statement that did not appear in any other media reports. The Daily Caller article and the EPA statement both accused AP of downplaying the fact that the flights in question took place on Southwest Airlines, which does not have first-class seats.
April 27: During a congressional hearing on April 26, Pruitt appeared to admit to lawmakers that he knew about at least one of two pay raises approved for his staffers when he stated that he had delegated authority to give the raises -- an apparent contradiction of his previous statement that he was unaware of the pay raises. The day after the hearing, The Daily Caller claimed to have a scoop: “An EPA memo obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation shows Pruitt delegated personnel authority to Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson more than one year ago, not around the time of the controversial raises. … Based on the document and Pruitt’s testimony, he was not saying he gave Jackson authority to grant the two raises in question.” The Daily Caller article failed to address the fact that Pruitt gave differing answers about his knowledge of the raises, and neglects to mention that internal emails suggest and three administration officials have stated that Pruitt personally approved at least one of the controversial pay raises.
May 8: Following reports by The Washington Post and E&E News about an EPA memo used to justify Pruitt’s first-class travel, The Daily Caller attempted to discredit the reports by quoting two unnamed sources. It wrote, “the memo is not signed, and is addressed to Gail Davis, EPA’s travel coordinator. Two sources said Pruitt would have needed approval from Jeanne Conklin, the acting controller in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, to fly first class.”
May 8: The Daily Caller cited EPA emails as it pushed back against Democratic claims that Pruitt wanted to establish a new agency office in his hometown of Tulsa, OK. It wrote, “The Daily Caller News Foundation reviewed emails that show Pruitt asked EPA officials to find a place ‘where he could work’ when he was home in Oklahoma," but didn't ask them to open a new EPA office.
May 11: The Daily Caller cited an EPA email as it disputed a New York Times article that claimed Pruitt’s security head Perrotta drank beers with Patrick Sullivan, the assistant inspector general who oversees investigations at the EPA. The Daily Caller wrote, “An email casts doubt on a key detail of The New York Times’s profile on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s former head of security — a detail that impugned the impartiality of a top official in the EPA inspector general’s office. … An email obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation provides more evidence that Perrotta and Sullivan did not drink at a bar together across the street from EPA offices.” The Times later corrected its story and reported that Perrotta and Sullivan did not drink beers together.
May 14: The Daily Caller cited EPA emails to push back against reports that Pruitt requested a 24/7 security detail starting on his first day at the EPA. It wrote, “The Daily Caller News Foundation obtained emails that show EPA officials discussed options to enhance Pruitt’s security before the Senate confirmed him. In fact, a member of President Donald Trump’s ‘beachhead’ team at EPA requested beefed up security for Pruitt as a precautionary measure.”
Media Matters has previously documented how Pruitt turns to conservative and right-wing outlets when he wants to unveil news. Pruitt’s earliest announcements of his planned "red team/blue team" exercise to debate climate science were in June 2017 on The Savage Nation and Breitbart News Daily.
It’s no surprise then that Pruitt’s EPA has often used The Daily Caller to announce major policy changes at the agency. In March, Pruitt gave an exclusive interview to The Daily Caller to announce a plan to severely restrict the type of scientific data the agency can use for policymaking, which could undermine clean air regulations. Instead of giving other reporters information about the plan, the EPA sent out a press release that linked to the The Daily Caller article.
Other announcements first reported in The Daily Caller included plans to drop a requirement for new power plants to have carbon-capture technology, the submission of a proposal to roll back the Waters of the United States rule, and the "evolution" of the "red team/blue team" exercise.
UPDATE (5/22): The EPA barred The Associated Press, CNN, and E&E News from attending a national summit on harmful water contaminants convened by Scott Pruitt. The AP reported that one of its reporters asked to speak to an EPA public affairs person after being denied entry and was then grabbed by the shoulders and shoved forcibly out of the building by security. In a statement, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox said, “This was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity” -- though reporters noted there were empty seats in the room. He continued: “We were able to accommodate 10 news outlets and provided a livestream for those we could not accommodate.” One of those reporters in attendance was The Daily Caller’s Jason Hopkins, who claimed to have witnessed the episode with the AP reporter and disputed that the reporter was “‘forcibly’ grabbed.” But a CNN photographer's account of the events supports the AP’s report.
In an appearance on CNN last month, then-CNN political commentator Bryan Lanza -- who recently left the network -- criticized investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. During that program, there was no disclosure that Lanza had the day before started officially lobbying to help a Russian company that had just been impacted by U.S. sanctions.
CNN has hired numerous pro-Trump commentators who misinform viewers and lie about matters related to President Donald Trump. And some of those commentators also come with numerous potential and real conflicts of interest related to their off-air work.
In February 2017, the lobbying and public relations firm Mercury hired Lanza as a managing director. He previously worked as an aide for Trump’s 2016 campaign and White House transition team. CNN hired Lanza in October 2017.
CNN.com itself reported on Lanza’s lobbying in a May 12 piece (later updated on May 14) -- headlined “Former Trump campaign aide is helping Russian firm shed sanctions” -- and noted that Trump “has presided over the expansion of a new generation of influence peddlers who have used their actual or perceived proximity to the President to line their pockets.” That article originally stated that Lanza still worked for the network but was later updated to note that “Lanza is no longer a CNN contributor.”
It’s not clear why Lanza left CNN. The network did not return Media Matters’ request for comment. But Lanza’s last appearance on the network was demonstrative of the problematic nature of CNN’s stable of pro-Trump commentators.
According to individual and company documents filed with the federal government, Gregory Barker, the chairman of the board of the Russian firm En+ Group, hired Mercury for lobbying services in April. In its piece on Lanza, CNN.com wrote that the former Trump aide is helping the En+ Group shed sanctions that were imposed on it last month by the Trump administration. The contract was signed on April 5, went into effect on April 26, and was received by the government on May 4.
CNN.com additionally reported that “Lanza's involvement with EN+ Group began within the last month or so, according to a source familiar with the transaction. The source said the former Trump campaign aide is not representing [Russian oligarch and En+ Group co-owner Oleg] Deripaska himself, only the board chairman of the group attempting to free itself from the Russian oligarch's control by helping to reduce Deripaska's stake in EN+ Group from roughly 70% to below 50%. That chairman -- the former British energy minister, Lord Gregory Barker -- is listed as Mercury's client.”
On April 27, the day after Mercury’s lobbying contract went into effect, Lanza appeared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 and criticized the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. During one segment, he said that "this House partisan investigation ... was never going to be the one that got to the truth of anything. It became nothing but a leak factory for the Democratic Party." During another segment, Lanza agreed with Trump's Twitter criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and stated that he is the "first special prosecutor" that's been "brought forward without a specific crime to investigate. So Donald Trump is right.”
CNN identified Lanza as a CNN political commentator during the program; there was no disclosure that Lanza had started lobbying to help En+ Group, though on-screen text did identify him as a managing director at Mercury.
Media Matters previously documented that CNN political commentator David Urban, who is the president of the American Continental Group, touted one of his lobbying clients without disclosing his financial connection.
CNN.com’s piece on former Trump aides who are now lobbying noted that Urban “works for a firm that represents a roster of top tier companies across the healthcare, telecommunications and utilities fields. Urban, who is also a CNN contributor, declined to comment.”
The cable news network previously employed Corey Lewandowski as a political commentator. The former Trump campaign manager had a clear conflict of interest: While working at CNN, he was also receiving large “severance” checks from the campaign, and he reportedly signed a nondisclosure agreement that essentially prevented him from disparaging his former boss.
After the Pruitt scandal, another Hugh Hewitt problem at MSNBC
Hugh Hewitt repeatedly used his employment at MSNBC to praise the Trump administration's efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act, calling it one of the “accomplishments” of President Donald Trump's first year in office. But Hewitt and MSNBC did not disclose that one of his law firm’s clients is an oil and gas company that is currently litigating allegations it violated the environmental law.
Hewitt hosts a weekend MSNBC program and contributes to the network’s other programming. He is also a syndicated radio host and partner at the law firm Larson O’Brien.
Hewitt's status at Larson O’Brien presents numeorus potential and existing conflicts of interest for his media employment. The firm stated in a May 5, 2017, press release that it will be opening a Washington, D.C., office and that it “is currently representing clients before the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” The press release touted Hewitt’s relocation to the Washington area as a reason for the firm to “have a permanent presence in the District.”
Hewitt has recently come under fire after Politico reported on his role in brokering a meeting between Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt and lawyers at Larson O’Brien; the meeting was concerning the efforts of firm client Orange County Water District to get the EPA to devote resources to cleaning up a polluted site in the district. The publication also noted that Hewitt has been a staunch defender of Pruitt on MSNBC.
In a statement today, MSNBC said that “Hewitt disclosed several times to MSNBC viewers that he has a friendship with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and also that Hewitt’s son works for the agency." The network said Hewitt at some point stopped discussing “EPA-related matters on MSNBC” and it gave Hewitt a “verbal warning” after it learned about the Orange County Water District meeting.
MSNBC statement on Hugh Hewitt pic.twitter.com/amrBowJqXO
— Max Tani (@maxwelltani) May 9, 2018
However, Media Matters has found another ethical problem with Hewitt’s MSNBC commentary regarding a different client of his law firm.
Larson O’Brien, which was formed in 2016, states that its practice areas include “environmental and water rights.” One of its prominent clients has been HVI Cat Canyon Inc. (HVI-CC), which was formerly known as Greka Oil & Gas Inc.
In June 2011, state and federal agencies -- including the EPA -- accused HVI-CC of violating provisions of the Clean Water Act by having “illegally discharged crude oil and produced water from its oil and gas production facilities in Santa Barbara County during 21 spills between June 2005 and December 2010. The spills resulted from ruptured storage tanks, corroded pipelines and overflowing injection ponds. Oil from each of the spills flowed into nearby waterways.” Since then, HVI-CC has been involved in years of litigation concerning the oil spills.
In 2015, the Obama administration strengthened the Clean Water Act by enacting the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, with then-President Barack Obama stating that it “will provide the clarity and certainty businesses and industry need about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, and it will ensure polluters who knowingly threaten our waters can be held accountable.” FoxNews.com wrote that “the case against HVI got a boost when” Obama signed that rule.
Business interests were unsurprisingly opposed to the rule, and on February 28, 2017, Trump signed an executive order that set in motion the rollback of WOTUS with the goal of replacing it with a more industry-friendly rule. Environmentalists have responded by arguing that the administration's moves are efforts to weakened the landmark Clean Water Act.
On March 16, 2017, Larson O’Brien filed a motion asking a district court to permanently halt the case against HVI-CC in light of Trump’s executive order regarding WOTUS. (Litigation regarding the case is ongoing.)
In other words, Hewitt’s law firm has had a financial connection -- both through its practice area and with a specific client -- to the Clean Water Act. But those conflicts of interest haven’t stopped Hewitt from using his MSNBC platform to praise the weakening of the law through the rollback of WOTUS.
During the September 29 edition of MTP Daily, Hewitt defended ethics questions about Pruitt by praising his work on the water rollback: “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.”
During the December 22 edition of MTP Daily, Hewitt cited the rollback of the water rule as an accomplishment, stating: “So, the president's numbers are horrible, but the accomplishments of this year, especially when it comes to [Supreme Court Justice] Neil Gorsuch and 12 appeals court judges, the EPA rollback of the Waters of the United States rule, the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Accord and, most importantly, defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, there's a lot of reframing going on.”
During the April 2 edition of MSNBC’s The Beat, Hewitt defended questions about an apartment Pruitt rented at below market rate from the wife of an energy lobbyist by stating: “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, 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.”
Hewitt did not disclose his law firm’s work related to the Clean Water Act in any of those appearances.
MSNBC did not return a request for comment from Media Matters for this piece.
Media Matters also documented that The Washington Post repeatedly allowed Hewitt to write columns praising Pruitt without disclosing that Hewitt’s law firm does work before the agency. He also referenced the water rollback, writing on March 1, 2017: “Trump’s repeated calls in many places for regulatory reform had been foreshadowed earlier Tuesday with an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency and its new and very able director, Scott Pruitt, to move quickly to roll back the ruinous, overreaching ‘Waters of the United States’ rule of the Obama years.” Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told Media Matters on May 8 that Hewitt would no longer write about Pruitt.
Hewitt’s firm represents “clients before the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency”
The Washington Post repeatedly allowed Hugh Hewitt to write columns praising Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt without disclosing that Hewitt’s law firm does work before the agency. Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told Media Matters that Hewitt would no longer write about Pruitt.
That law firm position presents numerous potential and real conflicts of interest for Hewitt’s media roles. Larson O’Brien stated in a May 5, 2017, press release that the firm will be opening a Washington D.C. office and “is currently representing clients before the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” The press release touted Hewitt’s relocation to the Washington area as a reason for the firm to “have a permanent presence in the District”:
Larson O’Brien is currently representing clients before the US Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Larson O’Brien partner Hugh Hewitt recently relocated to the Washington area where he hosts an award winning radio show during the morning drive-time hours. “With Hugh moving to Washington and our significant client work in the Capital, it made sense for us to have a permanent presence in the District,” said Stephen Larson.
Politico reported on May 7 that Hewitt brokered a meeting between Pruitt and lawyers at Larson O’Brien concerning efforts of the firm’s client Orange County Water District to get the EPA to devote resources to cleaning up a polluted site in the district. From the report, which is based on “emails released by EPA under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Sierra Club”:
Hewitt, a resident of Orange County whose son James works in EPA’s press office, emailed Pruitt in September to set up a meeting between the administrator and the law firm Larson O’Brien, which employs Hewitt and represents the Orange County Water District. Pruitt had been planning to meet with the lawyers in California a month earlier, but cancelled the trip to undergo knee surgery.
“I’ll join if the Administrator would like me too or can catch up later at a dinner,” Hewitt wrote in his Sept. 18 message. Hewitt added that the issues surrounding the Superfund site were “Greek to me but a big deal in my home county.”
Pruitt’s aides responded within minutes and quickly confirmed an Oct. 18 meeting for the lawyers and a project director.
Six weeks after that meeting, on Dec. 8, the Orange County North Basin site appeared on Pruitt’s list of 21 contaminated areas to address. A month later, Pruitt proposed listing the site on EPA’s National Priorities List, a move that could make it eligible for long-term federal cleanup funding from the federal government if the responsible polluters cannot be identified and forced to pay for its remediation.
Politico noted that Hewitt has been a vocal defender of Pruitt on MSNBC. Several journalists have criticized MSNBC for the blatant conflict of interest; The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro tweeted: “Um, it's not okay for a cable news contributor to ask the EPA administrator for favors like this and still be on TV talking about him. At. All. CC: @MSNBC.”
Hewitt’s conflict of interest problem has also extended to The Washington Post, which repeatedly allowed Hewitt to praise the EPA and Pruitt in opinion columns for the paper.
Hewitt himself referenced his work on issues related to the EPA in the Post. On January 4, 2017, he wrote: “I’ve worked for real estate developers on huge projects for three decades. My law practice was built on helping them figure out and comply with complex statutory and regulatory regimes and knowing how the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked.”
The following are instances in which the Post allowed Hewitt to discuss the EPA without disclosing his conflict of interest:
The Post did not disclose that Hewitt’s firm works on issues related to EPA regulations in those pieces. The paper has also not been consistent in disclosing that Hewitt’s son works for the EPA. According to his LinkedIn page, James Hewitt joined the agency in July 2017. Hewitt's July 4 and September 19 columns disclosed that connection while his August 19 and February 22 columns did not.
In an email to Media Matters, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wrote: “I was disturbed to learn this morning that Hugh Hewitt had intervened with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt on behalf of Hewitt’s law firm as he was writing about Pruitt in a column for The Washington Post. Hewitt, who has not written about Pruitt since September, has agreed not to write about him going forward and has assured us that similar incidents won’t occur in the future.”
The Washington Post also employs megalobbyist Ed Rogers as a contributor despite countless conflicts of interest relating to Roger’s lobbying firm. Over the years, the Post has repeatedly allowed Rogers to tout his clients’ interests without disclosure.
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Journalists have uncovered a long list of the interior secretary’s questionable actions and controversies
This post was updated on November 6, 2018, to incorporate additional news reports.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s ethically questionable behavior has triggered at least 17 government investigations into his conduct. Journalists took the lead in documenting many of Zinke's ethical lapses. The following is an overview of original reporting on scandals and controversies at the Department of Interior (DOI) under Zinke:
July 26, 2017, Anchorage Daily News: Zinke threatened to pull support for projects in Alaska after Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted “no” on Obamacare repeal. On July 26, Zinke called Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski (R) and Dan Sullivan (R), to inform them that Murkowski’s vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act jeopardized administration support for projects in Alaska, including expanding oil drilling. Sullivan called Zinke’s message “troubling,” and Murkowski told E&E News, “It was a difficult call.” The DOI’s inspector general opened an investigation into the incident, then dropped it in late August after the senators refused to discuss it with investigators. The Government Accountability Office also opened an investigation, but then dropped it in June 2018 because DOI did not cooperate, Politico reported. "Interior did not provide us with any information on the substance of the telephone calls. In light of this, we lack the requisite facts on which to base a legal opinion," Thomas Armstrong, GAO's general counsel, wrote to two House Democrats who requested the investiation last year.
September 28, 2017, Politico/Wash. Post: Zinke gave a speech to a hockey team owned by a campaign donor, then chartered a $12,000 flight home. Zinke traveled to Las Vegas on June 26 to give a motivational speech to a hockey team at the behest of team owner Bill Foley. After the speech, Zinke flew on a charter flight that cost taxpayers over $12,000 to an airport near his Montana home, aboard a plane owned by oil and gas executives. An inspector general report released on April 16, 2018, found that Zinke and his aides failed to relay important details about the trip to ethics officers, including Foley’s role as one of Zinke’s largest campaign contributors and the fact that the speech was unrelated to Zinke’s work as interior secretary. According to Politico, Foley donated $7,800 to Zinke’s 2014 congressional campaign, while employees and political action committees associated with his financial services company donated another $166,860. The inspector general also found that the $12,000 charter flight “could have been avoided.”
October 5, 2017, Politico: Zinke’s participation in a Republican fundraiser in the Virgin Islands raised ethics concerns. During what DOI labeled an official trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Zinke attended a fundraiser for the Virgin Islands Republican Party in March 2017. Donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a picture with him. After concerns were raised, the Virgin Islands Republican Party reimbursed taxpayers for the trip.
November 20, 2017, Politico: Zinke’s wife used Interior staff and resources to coordinate her travel with her husband’s. Lola Zinke relied on DOI staff to ensure her travel arrangements allowed her to accompany the interior secretary during some of his official events and trips, including ones to California, Alaska, Norway, and Greenland. “While the department says Lola Zinke paid her own way, the records show Interior used staff time to coordinate some of her activities while traveling with her husband,” Politico reported. One ethics expert called that “an ethically gray area.” Some ethics watchdogs are also concerned that Lola Zinke is using her access to high-level events to further her own political career; until recently, she served as campaign chair for a Republican Senate candidate, and she worked on the Trump campaign and transition teams. The DOI’s inspector general tried to investigate whether these actions and other travel arrangements by Ryan Zinke constituted an abuse or misuse of government resources, but the investigation was stymied “by absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips and a review process that failed to include proper documentation and accountability,” according to a memo released on November 15.
December 7, 2017, Politico: Zinke spent $14,000 on helicopter rides so he could attend a swearing-in and ride horses with Vice President Mike Pence. Zinke put taxpayers on the hook for a pair of helicopter trips that blurred the line between his professional and personal obligations. On June 21, he attended the swearing-in of his congressional replacement, Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), then took an $8,000 helicopter ride to an emergency management exercise in West Virginia. On July 7, Zinke took a $6,250 round-trip helicopter flight from Washington, D.C., to Yorktown, VA, to guarantee he was back in time to go horseback riding with Pence and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). The inspector general’s office declined to confirm an investigation into these specific helicopter rides, but spokesperson Nancy DiPaolo told CNN on December 8, “We are taking a comprehensive look at the secretary’s travel since he took office.”
December 29, 2017, Newsweek: Zinke spent almost $40,000 in wildfire preparedness funds for a helicopter tour of Nevada. On July 30, days after firefighters managed to largely contain the Whittier Fire in California, Zinke used nearly $40,000 from wildfire preparedness funds to pay for a helicopter tour of Nevada that did not include any visits to fire zones. DOI initially told Newsweek the tour was “in full compliance of all federal regulations.” But after Newsweek provided Interior officials with documentation showing the tour was paid for with funds “earmarked for such uses as worker pay and to purchase equipment,” DOI admitted the helicopter tour “was charged to the account in error” and said it would pay for the ride from “a more appropriate account.”
January 22, 2018, HuffPost: Zinke failed to disclose his shares in a firearms company and signed orders that could have benefitted the firearms industry. As nominee for interior secretary, Zinke neglected to inform the Office of Government Ethics that he retained 1,000 shares in PROOF Research, a rifle and weapons-parts manufacturer founded in Zinke’s hometown. Cabinet appointees are required to disclose all assets worth $1,000 or more. Although there is some dispute about the value of Zinke’s shares, HuffPost notes that Zinke’s long relationship with the company may have resulted in the company getting special access at Interior. Zinke provided consulting services to PROOF from 2011 to 2012. As interior secretary, he met with PROOF CEO Larry Murphy and a company lobbyist about a month after he was confirmed. Zinke also enacted policy changes -- such as rescinding the ban on lead ammunition and expanding hunting access at wildlife refuges -- that could benefit the firearms industry.
February 1, 2018, Politico: Interior appeared to cave to pressure from MGM to stonewall a casino proposal backed by two Native American tribes. The Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes received indications from Interior officials in May 2017 that the department would clear the way for the tribes to build a casino in Connecticut, about 12 miles from MGM Resorts International’s nearly $1 billion casino complex in Massachusetts. But MGM launched an aggressive lobbying campaign to convince Interior’s political appointees to change course, including outreach to Zinke via multiple meetings and phone calls with two Nevada Republican lawmakers closely allied with MGM. MGM lobbyists were invited by Zinke for a social visit two weeks before the agency was to decide on the tribes’ request. MGM lobbyists also met with Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose former firm also lobbies for MGM. Bernhardt signed an ethics agreement barring him from “participating in matters involving his former employer,” according to ThinkProgress. On September 15, DOI informed the tribes that it would delay its decision, even though federal law requires it to decide yes or no within 45 days. Records obtained by Politico show that “career staffers were circulating what they labeled ‘approval’ letters just 48 hours before their political bosses reversed course and refused to either OK or reject the tribes’ application.” The DOI’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the incident.
February 21, 2018, Mother Jones: Scientists resigned in protest after their agency violated ethical guidelines to give Zinke sensitive oil and gas research ahead of its public release. The head of the U.S. Geological Survey’s energy and minerals program, Murray Hitzman, resigned in protest on Dec. 17, 2017, after his agency bowed to pressure to provide Zinke with sensitive data about oil and gas deposits in Alaska before it was released publicly. The deputy associate director of the energy and minerals program also left the agency in part over pressure to violate ethical guidelines. Although DOI asserted its authority to see any scientific research the department produces, “numerous current and former Interior officials, however, say the department’s position raises serious ethical issues—particularly when it comes to energy and mineral assessments, which contain valuable economic data that have the potential to move markets,” Mother Jones reported. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), the ranking member of the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, asked DOI’s inspector general to investigate whether department officials committed any ethical violations in requesting the data.
March 9, 2018, AP: Interior planned to spend nearly $139,000 to upgrade Zinke’s office doors. Interior officials approved a contract to renovate “three sets of double doors in the secretary’s office, including two doors that open onto a corner balcony with a spectacular view of the Washington Monument and the National Mall,” The Associated Press reported. Though Zinke scoffed at questions about the excessive price of the renovations during a Senate hearing on March 13, two days later he told the House Committee on Natural Resources that he negotiated the price down to $75,000. Despite this, House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) sent Zinke a letter on March 22 asking for a briefing “on the need to replace the doors” and asking for “details on the acquisition process, bidding and receipts,” according to Reuters.
March 11, 2018, USA Today: Zinke’s trip to Pennsylvania to announce $56 million in grants during a close campaign may have violated the Hatch Act. Toward the end of a tight campaign for Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone, Zinke went to nearby East Bethlehem to announce $56 million in grants to clean up abandoned mining sites in the area. The entire event “had the feel of a hastily arranged news conference/town hall meeting/political opportunity,” according to the local Observer-Reporter. Saccone was among the politicians present, while his challenger did not attend. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is weighing a request to investigate whether Zinke’s trip was designed to benefit Saccone politically.
March 15, 2018, AP: Zinke stacks wildlife-trade advisory board with trophy hunters. Zinke appointed trophy hunters, including some with direct ties to the Trump family, to the International Wildlife Conservation Council, an advisory board tasked with rewriting federal rules to allow the importation of body parts from slain African elephants, lions, and rhinos. The Associated Press reported, “A coalition of more than 20 environmental and animal welfare groups objected that the one-sided makeup of the council could violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires government boards to be balanced in terms of points of view and not improperly influenced by special interests.” Most board members belong to hunting clubs or the National Rifle Association (NRA), and one member co-owns a private hunting reserve with Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. The Trump administration officially lifted a ban on importing elephant parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia on March 1.
March 21, 2018, Politico: Zinke had a security detail during his two-week vacation in Greece and Turkey. Ryan and Lola Zinke’s two-week vacation in Greece and Turkey to celebrate their 25-year wedding anniversary also included a security detail, according to records obtained by Politico. Besides these bare facts, the public still does not know important details about this arrangement including “exactly how many security personnel accompanied the couple, who paid for them, how much they cost or whether they traveled with Zinke and his wife, Lola, for the entire trip,” Politico reported.
March 26, 2018, Wash. Post: Zinke filled a new outdoor recreation advisory panel with members who could benefit from DOI decisions. At the urging of industry representatives, Zinke established the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee last November and appointed “officials representing companies with National Park Service contracts, such as those in the hospitality sector, as well as those from the manufacturing, fishing, boating and all-terrain-vehicle industries,” according to The Washington Post, which obtained records about the committee via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Two of Zinke’s nominees to the panel were flagged by Interior staffers as having potential conflicts of interest because their companies hold some of the National Park Service’s largest concessions contracts, but they were appointed anyway.
March 27, 2018, Politico: Florida’s offshore drilling exemption may have been intended to benefit Gov. Rick Scott’s Senate campaign. On January 4, 2018, Zinke announced a controversial proposal to allow offshore drilling in many new coastal areas, including off the coast of Florida. Five days later, Zinke exempted Florida from the expanded drilling plan after a supposedly spur-of-the-moment encounter in the Tallahassee airport with Florida Gov. Rick Scott. But records reviewed by Politico in March “showed that top officials from the offices of both Scott and the Interior secretary were in regular contact for several days leading up to the sudden announcement, contradicting the supposed spontaneous event that portrayed Scott as protecting Florida’s environment.” According to The Washington Post, “The whole episode seems to have been designed to demonstrate Mr. Scott’s power and influence, by having him appear to summon the interior secretary to his state and bring him to heel in an afternoon.” Scott announced his Senate candidacy on April 9, 2018. The next day, CNN reported the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating whether Zinke’s Florida announcement violated the Hatch Act.
March 28, 2018, Talking Points Memo: Zinke’s mass reassignment of career Interior employees may have violated federal anti-discrimination laws. Last July, Zinke initiated the reassignment of 35 Senior Executive Service members at DOI, of which 27 were ultimately transferred. Many were told to “either accept a new placement on the other side of the country or in a role unrelated to their background, or leave the agency,” according to Talking Points Memo. The DOI’s inspector general concluded the reassignments occurred “without a written plan or clear criteria, and without consulting with the departmental leadership,” which created the perception that staff were reassigned for “political or punitive reasons.” Because a third of those reassigned are Native American, DOI may have violated federal anti-discrimination laws, as well as its own Indian Preference rules, as TPM later reported. Zinke has reportedly told senior staff that diversity is not important. After a congressional hearing in March, he was also accused of racial insensitivity for responding “Oh, konnichiwa” to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) after she shared the experience of two of her grandfathers who were held in internment camps during World War II.
April 6, 2018, Reveal: National Park Service deletes climate change from months-delayed report on sea-level rise. “National Park Service officials have deleted every mention of humans’ role in causing climate change in drafts of a long-awaited report on sea level rise and storm surge,” according to an investigation conducted by The Center for Investigative Reporting and published on its Reveal website. DOI oversees the National Park Service. Cat Hawkins, the head of the National Park Service’s climate change response program, made the deletions, in possible violation of Interior rules prohibiting political appointees from influencing scientific and scholarly activities. The report was also delayed for 10 months, which hindered park managers’ ability to access the latest research about how to mitigate the effects of extreme weather and sea-level rise on their parks. Zinke told the House Committee on Natural Resources in March, “I didn’t change a paragraph — a comma — in any document and I never would.” DOI’s inspector general is investigating the matter.
April 16, 2018, HuffPost: Oil industry rep uses perch on DOI advisory group to push “wish list” of regulatory rollbacks. Under Zinke, advisory groups at DOI have been packed with industry representatives who want looser regulations. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), a lobbying group that represents 300 oil and gas companies, chairs one such group, which is tasked with recommending how Zinke should manage federal lands for fossil fuel development. The group’s recommendations, which included regulatory rollbacks that had been on WEA’s wish list for years, was initially drafted by Tripp Parks, WEA’s head of government affairs. According to HuffPost, “A document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that Parks created the draft recommendations one day before Sgamma circulated them to committee members overseeing the working group.” The Sierra Club’s legal director told HuffPost, “It’s a very clear instance of regulatory capture.”
June 13, 2018, Wash. Post: DOI canceled a study of the health effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining with little justification, the department’s inspector general found. After DOI last August halted a major public health study being conducted by the National Academies of Science on the impacts of surface coal mining on nearby residents, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) sent two letters to Zinke requesting information about the stoppage. Grijalva received no answer, so he requested an investigation by the DOI’s inspector general, which then found that “Departmental officials were unable to provide specific criteria used for their determination whether to allow or cease certain grants and cooperative agreements.” Records obtained by Pacific Standard show that before DOI stopped the study, Deputy Assistant Secretary Katharine MacGregor “had no fewer than six meetings with the most powerful mining players in the country. In both April and May of 2017, she met with the National Mining Association. In March and June, meanwhile, she met with Arch Coal, a long-time practitioner of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.”
June 19, 2018, Politico: Zinke and the chairman of Halliburton could both benefit from a proposed real-estate deal in Montana. A foundation created by Zinke is helping to pave the way for a large commercial development that is backed by David Lesar, the chairman of energy-services giant Halliburton. According to Politico, the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation -- established by Zinke and currently run by his wife Lola -- agreed to allow 95 Karrow LLC, the Lesar-backed entity, to build a parking lot on land that had been donated to the foundation for creation of a park. The Zinkes also personally own land that's adjacent to the proposed development, potentially making that land much more valuable if the proposed development deal were to go through. The deal raises ethical concerns because Halliburton’s business could be substantially affected by decisions made by DOI. Zinke met with Lesar and the project’s other developers at Interior headquarters last year, Politico reported on June 21. Lesar and Zinke have had a relationship for years -- Lesar and his wife donated $10,400 to Zinke’s first House campaign in 2014. On June 18, DOI's deputy inspector general confirmed that her office had opened an investigation into whether Zinke violated conflict-of-interest laws.
June 26, 2018, Reuters: Zinke’s promotion of Trump's campaign slogan may have violated the Hatch Act. During a meeting of the Western Governors Association on June 26, Zinke tweeted a photo of one of his socks, which was emblazoned with Trump’s face and his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Zinke deleted that tweet and then posted a follow-up tweet that crossed out “Make America Great Again” yet still showed Trump’s face -- and then he deleted that one too. Those tweets may have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits some forms of political activity by federal employees, Reuters reported. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced in March that because Trump has confirmed his candidacy for reelection, federal employees are prohibited while on duty from wearing or displaying items with the phrase “Make America Great Again” or non-official pictures of Trump. On July 9, CNN reported that the Office of Special Counsel opened a case file on whether Zinke’s tweet violated the Hatch Act.
July 6, 2018, HuffPost: Former NRA lobbyist working for Zinke may have committed multiple ethics violations. Benjamin Cassidy, a former NRA lobbyist who joined the Interior Department in October 2017, may have violated ethics rules by attending at least two meetings with Zinke that involved issues Cassidy had recently lobbied on. Cassidy attended a February 2018 meeting on “international conservation,” a discussion that most likely focused on issues such as hunting and animal trophy imports. While still employed with the NRA in 2017, Cassidy lobbied Congress on legislation dealing with animal trophy imports. Cassidy, whose official title is senior deputy director for intergovernmental and external affairs, should have signed Trump’s ethics pledge that bars former lobbyists in the executive branch from participating for two years in any matters on which they lobbied in the two years before starting an administration job. Another potential ethics violation occurred in March, when Cassidy attended a pair of private receptions Interior held for members of the International Wildlife Conservation Council, which includes an NRA employee and a former NRA board member, HuffPost reported on July 16. Cassidy served as the council members’ primary contact during their visit to Washington, D.C., for the receptions. Although it is not clear if Cassidy played a role in selecting members of the council, member Cameron Hanes thanked Cassidy as well as Zinke for including him. Cassidy “appears to be in violation of the prohibition on working on matters on which you’ve lobbied,” an ethics expert told HuffPost.
July 20, 2018, CNN: Zinke kept meetings off of public calendar. Zinke's publicly released schedule omitted or obscured the details of about a dozen meetings. CNN compared email conversations between Zinke and his scheduler (made available through FOIA requests) to the calendars that the Interior Department released and found numerous discrepancies between the two. Zinke had previously undisclosed meetings with lobbyists, lawmakers, and interest groups. For example, CNN found that in May 2017, a meeting listed on his schedule with Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) also included three executives from Delaware North, a contractor who does business with national parks. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, called for an investigation. In September, CNN followed up on this reporting and found that nearly 50 meetings in May and June 2018 were vaguely described, making it difficult for the public to determine what he was doing and who he was meeting with. And in October, CNN reported that his calendar omissions actually dated to his very first day in office, and that some of the newly discovered omissions included meetings with representatives from energy companies whose activities DOI regulates.
July 23, 2018, Wash. Post: Zinke and aides rejected evidence that supported creation of national monuments and sought out evidence that didn't -- and then tried to conceal strategy from the public. Zinke’s team selectively tailored a review of national monuments last year to dismiss the benefits of monuments and emphasize the value of activities such as logging and energy development on public lands, according to thousands of pages of email correspondence inadvertently released by the Interior Department’s FOIA office. The DOI retracted the documents the next day and released redacted versions. In the first version, for instance, draft economic reports on monuments under scrutiny included information on the Interior Department’s “ability to estimate the value of energy and/or minerals forgone as a result of the designations,” but that information was redacted from the second batch of emails. In another instance, officials marked this statement about an Oregon national monument as eligible for redaction: “Previous timber sale planning and development in the [expansion area] can be immediately resumed.” The review came in response to an executive order from Trump last year that instructed Zinke to scrutinize 27 national monuments established over a period of 21 years. It led Trump to dramatically shrink two national monuments in Utah.
October 16, 2018, The Hill: Zinke replaces DOI deputy inspector general with Republican political operative. The Hill reported that DOI Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall was being replaced by Suzanne Israel Tufts, a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) who had previously worked as a lawyer and liaison for the Trump campaign. Tufts will now be acting deputy inspector general. Kendall, who oversaw DOI’s watchdog investigations and audits team for 10 years, only learned that she was being replaced when a colleague showed her an email sent by HUD Secretary Ben Carson to his agency’s staffers. The move is seen as highly unusual, particularly as Zinke has been the subject of 14 government investigations into his conduct as secretary, including half a dozen that are ongoing. Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general for the DOJ, tweeted, “Politicizing the oversight function is dangerous, especially in the absence of any Congressional oversight. Changing IGs in the midst of multiple serious investigations of the agency's head should raise alarm bells everywhere.” And Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, stated, “This stinks to high heaven. Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department are awash in wave after wave of scandal and corruption, and they decide now is the perfect time to get rid of the current IG."
October 16, 2018, The Hill: DOI was reportedly poised to replace deputy inspector general with Republican political operative, then reversed course after outcry. The Hill reported on October 16 that DOI Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall was being replaced by Suzanne Israel Tufts, a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) who had previously worked as a lawyer and liaison for the Trump campaign. Tufts would become acting deputy inspector general, according to The Hill. Kendall has overseen DOI’s watchdog investigations and audits team for 10 years, and has been running investigations into a number of Zinke's questionable activities. She first learned that she was to be replaced when a colleague showed her an email sent by HUD Secretary Ben Carson to his agency’s staffers. The reported personnel shift prompted a public outcry. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said, “This stinks to high heaven. Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department are awash in wave after wave of scandal and corruption, and they decide now is the perfect time to get rid of the current IG." Two days later, on October 18, DOI told CBS that the shift was not happening and reports about it were "false." On October 19, CBS reported that Tufts resigned from her position at HUD.
October 18, 2018, Wash. Post: Zinke’s travel arrangements raised red flags among DOI ethics officials. A report by DOI’s Office of Inspector General detailed how Zinke’s travel practices violated department policy. The DOI's solicitor office approved Zinke’s wife Lola to travel with him in government vehicles for free. Although DOI policy prohibited this practice, Zinke changed the policy this summer. And in order to further legitimize her taxpayer-funded travel, Zinke asked DOI staffers to research how his wife could get a volunteer job with the department. The report also found that a DOI security detail accompanied Zinke and his wife on a vacation to Turkey and Greece last year, at a cost of $25,000. Although this was determined not to be in violation of policy, the report did note the significant cost to taxpayers. An Interior spokesperson denied any wrongdoing on Zinke's part, stating that he “follows all relevant laws and regulations and that all of his travel was reviewed and approved by career ethics officials and solicitors prior to travel.”
October 30, 2018, Wash. Post: Interior watchdog refers Zinke investigation to Justice Department. DOI's acting inspector general has referred one of its probes into Zinke’s behavior to the Justice Department, and prosecutors will now determine if it warrants a criminal investigation. According to The Washington Post, individuals close to the matter did not specify which investigation was referred. The Office of Inspector General is currently conducting at least three probes into Zinke’s conduct as interior secretary, including his role in a Montana real estate deal with the Halliburton chairman and his department’s decision to block a casino proposal backed by Native American tribes. Walter Shaub, Trump's former director of the Office of Government Ethics, told Politico that this is a major development: “What I can say is, Inspectors general don’t tend to refer matters to the Department of Justice unless they think that it’s likely there’s been a criminal violation.”
October 31, 2018, HuffPost: Zinke compared Robert E. Lee to Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking in Kentucky at a ceremony designating Camp Nelson as a new national monument to black Civil War soldiers, Zinke likened Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Martin Luther King Jr. Zinke referred to the placement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is near both the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, the site of Lee’s former plantation. Zinke said, “I like to think that Lincoln doesn’t have his back to General Lee. He’s in front of him. There’s a difference. Similar to Martin Luther King doesn’t have his back to Lincoln. He’s in front of Lincoln as we march together to form a more perfect union. That’s a great story, and so is Camp Nelson.” Local Kentucky newspaper The Jessamine Journal posted the speech on Facebook. A year previously, in an interview with Breitbart, Zinke defended Confederate monuments and said none of them would be removed from federal land.
November 5, 2018, Wash. Post: Zinke violated an ethics pledge by working on issues related to his family foundation's land holdings. In January 2017, after he was nominated to be interior secretary, Zinke pledged to step down as president of a foundation he created, the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation, and refrain from matters pertaining to it for one year. But according to The Washington Post, in August 2017 Zinke exchanged emails with a city planner in Whitefish, MT, and told him he could construct a disc-golf course on the foundation’s land. In earlier messages in the same email exchange, Zinke criticized a Politico article that linked his foundation to a property deal with the chairman of Halliburton. Additionally, his foundation’s 2018 annual report still showed that Zinke continued to serve as a foundation officer, though he later said that was in error.
For four days last week, Sean Hannity attacked the April 9 FBI raid of Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s office and hotel room, all without disclosing that he is also a legal client of Cohen, as Cohen’s lawyers disclosed in federal court today.
The New York Times reported that FBI agents were looking for records of payments to two women who say they had affairs with President Donald Trump years ago, Karen McDougal and Stephanie Clifford (also known as Stormy Daniels). They were also reportedly looking for communications between Trump and Cohen about a leaked Access Hollywood tape and records about Cohen’s taxi medallion business. Days later, CNN broke the news that the FBI seized recordings Cohen made of conversations with a lawyer who once represented both women. The Washington Post reported that Cohen is being investigated “for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations.”
The disclosure that the Fox News host is a client of Cohen was made by one of Cohen’s attorneys in court today, after Cohen’s lawyers said they contacted Hannity and he had not authorized the release of his name. Nonetheless, the court ordered Hannity’s name disclosed. As Politico explained, Hannity (and his guests) repeatedly criticized the raids without disclosing his own connection to Cohen until after it was made public in court.
Hannity dedicated multiple segments of his Fox primetime show to criticizing the raid on Cohen each night from April 9 through April 12 (he spent the entire April 13 edition of his show covering Trump’s airstrikes on Syria.) Here's exactly what he said:
Hannity opened his show by saying the Michael Cohen raid is a declaration of “a legal war on the president.”
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): And this is a Fox News alert. President Trump's long-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen, just had his office, his home, and his hotel that he was staying in raided by the FBI today in an early morning raid. Now, what that means is Mueller's witch-hunt investigation is now a run away (sic) train that is clearly careening off the tracks.
HANNITY: All right. Tonight, we have explosive new chapter in Mueller's partisan witch-hunt. Now, we have now entered a dangerous phase and there is no turning back from this.
Now, keep in mind. Cohen was never part of the Trump administration or the Trump campaign. This is now officially an all hands on deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States. Now, Mueller and Rosenstein have declared what is a legal war on the president.
Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett said to Hannity that the Cohen raid “abused the law.”
GREGG JARRETT( FOX NEWS LEGAL ANALYST): I think the president was right to be frustrated and angry. Americans should be outraged. This is an abuse of the system.
You know, here you have an attorney general who should never have recused himself and seems to be rather incompetent on the matter. You've got corrupt acts by top officials at the FBI and you've got Rosenstein and Mueller who have abused the law and today was a perfect example of this.
Hannity said the Cohen raid was a declaration of “all-out political war against this president” and advised Trump to continue attacking Mueller and cease any negotiations with him.
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): The so-called investigation to Russia collusion, it is now officially moved beyond its mandate into a political takedown of the president you elected, and it seems by any means necessary. Now, just a minute, we will uncover the shocking unfair two-tiered justice system in this country and we'll show you just how abusively biased and corrupt Mueller and his team of investigators are and that they have now declared an all-out political war against this president.
Frankly, the president needs to immediately start advancing the truth about who Robert Mueller is, what his mandate was, how far beyond his mandate is and about his entire team of Democratic donors. And, frankly, any negotiations that were going on with the president talking to Robert Mueller, that should probably likely end if it hasn't already, and the president and his legal team should be preparing to take this all the way to the United States Supreme Court. That's where we are tonight.
Hannity and Jarrett agreed that the Cohen raid was a “trap” to provoke Trump into doing something rash.
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): Gregg, I'll start with you. You have referred to the seizing of Michael Cohen's attorneys as an affront to our legal system and our justice system.
GREGG JARRETT (FOX NEWS LEGAL ANALYST): And it shows just how unprincipled Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein are. You know, they knew it was outside the scope of the authority of the special counsel, so they gave it to somebody else to do their dirty work. I suspect this was an effort to provoke the president into doing something [rash] that would hurt himself. But he's too smart for that, he's not going to do that.
But -- think about what's it at risk here.
HANNITY: Well, it's a trap. Don't you think it's a trap in a lot of ways?
JARRETT: It's surely a trap, as is a trap of sitting down with Robert Mueller to answer questions.
Wannabe Trump lawyer Joe diGenova told Hannity the Cohen raid shows Rod Rosenstein and Mueller are “using a grand jury to terrorize people” and it’s “an abuse of power” that Rosenstein should be fired for.
JOE DIGENOVA: Look, I must tell you, I find this raid of Mr. Cohen's office so appalling in every sense -- legal, ethical professional responsibility. What Rod Rosenstein and Bob Mueller have done is weaponized in an unconstitutional way the criminal investigation process which should be sacrosanct.
And what they have done is they have conducted and are conducting now something that is called an in terrorem grand jury. They are using a grand jury to terrorize people. That is an abuse of power. Mr. Rosenstein is responsible for it.
And while I agree with Alan wholeheartedly that Mr. Rosenstein cannot possibly ethically participate in this, it will make no difference to him because he now has an animus toward the president of the United States, which disqualifies him from the performance of his duties and Jeff Sessions should fire him tomorrow morning.
Hannity said that the Cohen raid is “what we expect in Venezuela.”
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): All right as we continue with Joe diGenova and professor Alan Dershowitz, these tactics are not American. That's the point. This is -- this is what we expect in Venezuela. This is not the United States or anything.
Hannity cited the Cohen raid to smear Mueller’s investigation as an “overreaching witch hunt” and complained that liberals weren’t standing up for Cohen’s rights.
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): Now, we turn to some other developments, including those surrounding Robert Mueller's overreaching witch hunt. Former Federal Election Commission chairman, his name is Bradley Smith, he's a Republican appointed by President Clinton, is throwing cold water on the notion that Michael Cohen could or should be charged with a crime in connection to this whole Stormy Daniels payment.
So, now, it's actually moved into Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal and the "Access Hollywood" tape and worse. And raiding the home of the president's personal attorney to find those issues, not about Russia -- at some point, I am wondering where is the left in this country? Where are the civil libertarians in this country?
All transcripts are from the Nexis database.
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Hewitt, whose son was hired by Pruitt as a press secretary, has been a staunch defender of the EPA chief
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.
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 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.”
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’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.”
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."
Journalists have uncovered a long list of controversies during Pruitt's time in office
This post was updated on 4/24/18 to incorporate additional news reports.
The Trump presidency has been called the most unethical in modern history, with its scandals continuously dominating the news cycle. And the questionable ethical behavior extends far beyond the White House to cabinet members and the departments and agencies they oversee, including the Environmental Protection Agency.
Journalists covering the EPA have unearthed a litany of scandals, conflicts of interest, extravagant expenditures, and ethically dubious actions involving administrator Scott Pruitt and other politically appointed officials. Here is an overview of the reporting on ethical scandals at Pruitt’s EPA, starting a week after he was sworn in and continuing up to the present:
February 24, 2017, KOKH: Pruitt lied to senators about his use of a private email account. An investigation by Oklahoma City Fox affiliate KOKH revealed that Pruitt lied during his Senate confirmation hearing when he said he did not use a private email account to conduct official business while he was attorney general of Oklahoma, a finding later confirmed by the office of the attorney general. The Oklahoma Bar Association subsequently opened an investigation into the matter, which could lead to Pruitt being disbarred in the state of Oklahoma.
May 17, 2017, ThinkProgress: An EPA appointee appeared to violate Trump's ethics order on lobbyists. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) sent a letter to Pruitt on May 16 noting that EPA appointee Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett had lobbied both the Senate and the House on EPA regulations as recently as 2016 -- an apparent violation of Trump’s ethics executive order barring former lobbyists from participating in any government matter related to their past lobbying within two years of their appointment.
June 16, 2017, Bloomberg: Pruitt met with oil executives at Trump’s D.C. hotel, then backed away from a regulation on oil companies. On March 22, Pruitt met with oil executives who sit on the American Petroleum Institute’s board of directors, and less than three weeks later, the EPA announced that it was reconsidering a regulation requiring oil and gas companies to control methane leaks. The meeting took place at the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C., which Time has called a “dealmaker’s paradise” for “lobbyists and insiders.”
August 28, 2017, E&E News: Pruitt gave a Superfund job to a failed banker whose bank had given loans to Pruitt. In May, Pruitt appointed Albert “Kell” Kelly to head a task force on the EPA’s Superfund program, even though Kelly had been fined $125,000 by federal banking regulators and banned for life from banking activity because of misdeeds committed when he was CEO of Oklahoma-based SpiritBank. Kelly had no previous experience working on environmental issues and, as ThinkProgress reported in February 2018, he had a financial stake in Phillips 66, an oil company that the EPA had deemed responsible for contaminating areas in Louisiana and Oregon. In previous years, Kelly’s bank had given a loan to Pruitt to purchase a share in a minor league baseball team and provided acquisition financing when the team was sold. The bank had also provided three mortgage loans to Pruitt and his wife, as The Intercept reported in December.
September 20, 2017, Wash. Post: Pruitt's security team drew staff away from criminal investigations. Pruitt’s 24/7 security detail -- the first-ever round-the-clock protection detail for an EPA administrator -- required triple the manpower of his predecessors' security teams and pulled in special agents who would have otherwise spend their time investigating environmental crimes.
September 26, 2017, Wash. Post: Pruitt spent about $43,000 on a private soundproof booth, violating federal spending law. The Post reported on September 26 that the EPA spent nearly $25,000 to construct a secure, soundproof communications booth in Pruitt’s office, even though there was another such booth on a different floor at EPA headquarters. No previous EPA administrators had such a setup, the Post reported. On March 14, the Post reported that the EPA also spent more than $18,000 on prep work required before the private phone booth could be installed, which put its total cost “closer to $43,000.” On April 16, a Government Accountability Office report found that Pruitt’s use of agency funds for the booth violated federal rules. Agency heads are required to notify Congress in advance when office improvement expenditures exceed $5,000. Two days later, Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told lawmakers that his office is investigating Pruitt’s spending on the booth.
September 27, 2017, Wash. Post: Pruitt spent $58,000 on charter and military flights. Pruitt took at least four noncommerical and military flights that together cost taxpayers more than $58,000. The most expensive of these was a $36,000 flight on a military jet from Ohio, where Pruitt had joined Trump at an event promoting an infrastructure plan, to New York, where Pruitt then set off on a trip to Italy.
October 24, 2017, CNN: Pruitt met with a mining CEO, then immediately started clearing the way for his proposed mine. In May, Pruitt sat down with the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, the company seeking to build the controversial Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. Just hours after that meeting, he directed the EPA to withdraw an Obama-era proposal to protect the ecologically rich area from certain mining activities. (In January 2018, Pruitt reversed his decision without explanation.)
December 12, 2017, Wash. Examiner: Pruitt made a costly trip to Morocco to promote natural gas. In December, Pruitt flew to Morocco to promote natural gas exports during talks with Moroccan officials, as first reported by The Washington Examiner. E&E reported that the trip cost nearly $40,000, according to an EPA employee. The Washington Post reported, “The purpose of the trip sparked questions from environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers and some industry experts, who noted that the EPA plays no formal role in overseeing natural gas exports. Such activities are overseen primarily by the Energy Department and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.”
December 15, 2017, Mother Jones/NY Times: The EPA hired a GOP opposition research firm whose VP had investigated EPA employees. Mother Jones reported that the EPA awarded a $120,000 contract to Definers Corp., a Republican PR firm specializing in opposition research and finding damaging information on individuals, to do what the firm describes as "war room"-style media monitoring. According to The New York Times, Definers Vice President Allan Blutstein had submitted at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests to the EPA targeting employees that he deemed “resistance" figures critical of Pruitt or the Trump administration. After the contract was exposed, the EPA canceled it.
February 11, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt spent $90,000 on first-class flights and other travel in a single week. During a stretch in early June, Pruitt racked up at least $90,000 in taxpayer-funded travel costs, including first-class, business-class, and military flights. The figure did not include the cost of Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail accompanying him on those trips. One first-class flight was for an overnight trip to New York, where Pruitt made two media appearances to praise Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. According to the Post, “[EPA] records show that wherever Pruitt’s schedule takes him, he often flies first or business class, citing unspecified security concerns.” The Associated Press later reported that, for travel where Pruitt had to foot the bill himself, the EPA head flew coach, according to an EPA official with direct knowledge of Pruitt’s security spending. The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Trey Gowdy (R-SC), demanded documentation and explanation for Pruitt’s first- and business-class work travel, but Pruitt missed the chairman’s March 6 deadline to turn over documents. As of April 11, the EPA still hadn’t provided all requested documents, so Gowdy sent Pruitt another letter demanding the information. Later reporting by The Associated Press found that Pruitt flew coach when taxpayers were not footing the bill.
February 13, 2018, CBS News: Pruitt flew luxury business class on a foreign airline. Pruitt broke with government rules requiring employees to fly on U.S. carriers. He got a waiver to return home from Milan, Italy, in June on Emirates Airline in what CBS described as “one of the world’s most luxurious business class cabins.”
February 15, 2018, NY Times: Pruitt met with trucking executives, then preserved a loophole to benefit their company. In May, Pruitt met with executives from Fitzgerald Glider Kits, a company that sells big-rig trucks with retrofitted diesel engines. They were seeking to preserve a loophole that exempted Fitzgerald’s trucks from emission rules. Pruitt announced in November that he would provide the exemption, citing a Fitzgerald-funded Tennessee Tech study that found the company’s trucks emitted no more pollution than trucks with modern emissions systems. But just days after Pruitt made his announcement, EPA staffers published findings that Fitzgerald trucks emit 43 to 55 times as much air pollution as new trucks. And after The New York Times reported on the story, Tennessee Tech's president disavowed the Fitzgerald-funded study and asked the EPA to disregard it. The EPA responded by claiming to the Times that it "did not rely upon the study," even though Pruitt had cited it in making his announcement about the exemption. In April, four Republican senators and 10 Republican House members sent Pruitt a letter asking him to close the loophole.
February 26, 2018, Politico: The EPA has been hit with a record number of anti-secrecy lawsuits. A Politico analysis found that the EPA has “experienced a huge surge in open records lawsuits since President Donald Trump took office” and that 2017 was “the busiest calendar year by far for open-records cases brought against EPA, according to data stretching back to 1992.” A separate analysis by the Project on Government Oversight found that the EPA has been especially slow in resolving Freedom of Information Act requests.
March 5, 2018, E&E News/AP: An EPA public affairs official was given the OK to do outside media consulting. John Konkus, a top political aide to Pruitt who works in the EPA's public affairs office, was granted permission to work as a media consultant outside of his agency work. In August, when the arrangement was approved, Konkus had “two likely clients” for his outside work and anticipated adding more in the next six months. The EPA has not disclosed who those clients were. Konkus, a former Trump campaign aide, had been put in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants that the EPA distributes annually -- an "unusual" arrangement, as The Washington Post reported in September. According to the Post, "Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for 'the double C-word' — climate change — and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations."
March 6, 2018, Wash. Post: EPA awarded a bug-sweeping contract to a business associate of Pruitt’s head of security. The head of Pruitt’s security detail, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, advised EPA officials to hire his business associate for a contract to conduct a sweep of Pruitt’s office for concealed listening devices, a source told The Washington Post. Perrotta’s move prompted Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to ask the EPA for documentation that Perrotta obeyed federal conflict-of-interest rules.
March 8, 2018, AP: Almost half of EPA political appointees have strong industry ties. An analysis conducted by The Associated Press found that “nearly half of the political appointees hired at the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump have strong industry ties. Of 59 EPA hires tracked by the AP over the last year, about a third worked as registered lobbyists or lawyers for chemical manufacturers, fossil fuel producers and other corporate clients that raise the very type of revolving-door conflicts of interests that Trump promised voters he would eliminate. Most of those officials have signed ethics agreements saying they would not participate in actions involving their former clients while working at the EPA. At least three have gotten waivers allowing them to do just that.”
March 8, 2018, The New Republic: Pruitt appointed the vice president of a polluting company to the EPA’s environmental justice advisory council. On March 7, Pruitt announced the addition of eight new members to the agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, one of whom was Michael Tilchin, a vice president of CH2M Hill, a big engineering firm. The New Republic reported that since February 2017, CH2M Hill’s work at the Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear weapons production facility in Washington state, “has sparked at least three accidental releases of plutonium dust, which emits alpha radiation—'the worst kind of radiation to get inside your body,’ according to KING-TV, the Seattle-based news station that’s been investigating the incidents.” Dozens of workers at the site have tested positive for internal plutonium contamination in the wake of the releases.
March 28, 2018, Politico: EPA signs research agreement with firm tied to GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson. In March of 2017, Pruitt met with executives from Water-Gen, a technology firm based in Israel, at the behest of GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, and Pruitt had a second meeting with a Water-Gen executive in May. In January of this year, the EPA agreed to study Water-Gen's technology, an “atmospheric water generator” that the company claims can pull drinkable water out of the air and thereby provide clean water in remote areas with poor infrastructure. The meeting came to light after activists sued the EPA and forced the agency to produce Pruitt’s calendar. Important details about the arrangement, including Adelson’s relationship with the company, are still unknown.
March 28, 2018, HuffPost: EPA gave employees talking points based on Pruitt’s lukewarm climate denial. Staffers at the EPA received an email on March 27 from the Office of Public Affairs with a list of eight approved talking points about climate change, echoing lines that Pruitt likes to use when discussing the topic. Point No. 5 is one the administrator has repeated often: "Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue."
March 29, 2018, ABC News/Bloomberg: Pruitt paid below-market rent for a condo co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist. For the first half of 2017, Pruitt lived at a prime Capitol Hill address in a condo co-owned by Vicki Hart, wife of energy lobbyist J. Steven Hart. ABC News reported that, instead of contracting with a real estate broker, Pruitt worked directly with Steven Hart to arrange the $50-a-night rental agreement, with rent having to be paid only for the nights Pruitt stayed in the unit. ABC also reported that Pruitt's daughter used a second room in the condo from May to August, in apparent violation of the lease agreement. The EPA reimbursed the condo association $2,460 after Pruitt’s security team kicked in the door, mistakenly believing his safety was in jeopardy. While Pruitt was living in the condo, and paying well below market rate, the EPA gave its approval for expansion of the Alberta Clipper oil pipeline, directly benefiting Enbridge Inc., a client of Hart’s lobbying firm, according to The New York Times. Also, Steven Hart “was personally representing a natural gas company, an airline giant, and a major manufacturer that had business before the agency at the time he was also renting out a room to Pruitt,” according to The Daily Beast, and the Harts have donated to Pruitt's political campaigns since 2010. After the condo story broke, EPA’s top ethics watchdog said that he didn’t have all the information he needed when he initially determined that Pruitt’s rental arrangement did not violate federal rules, and the federal government’s top ethics official sent a letter to the EPA expressing concern over Pruitt’s living arrangements, travel, and reports that Pruitt retaliated against officials questioning his spending. And on April 21, The Hill reported that Pruitt met with Steven Hart last year on behalf a client, an executive linked to Smithfield Foods, according to a newly filed disclosure from Hart's firm. Hart and Smithfield contend that the meeting was about philanthropy and did not constitute lobbying, but the disclosure still appears to contradict Hart’s earlier statement that he had not lobbied the EPA during 2017 and 2018 as well as Pruitt’s earlier claim that “Hart has no clients that have business before this agency.”
March 29, 2018, The Intercept: Nominee to head Superfund program is lawyer with long record of defending polluting companies. Pruitt has repeatedly claimed that he wants to prioritize the EPA Superfund program, which cleans up sites contaminated by industry. But Trump’s nominee to oversee the Superfund program, Peter Wright, seems unlikely to help the cause. As The Intercept reported, "For the last quarter-century, he has defended companies responsible for some of the biggest of these industrial disasters, including Dow Chemical, where he has worked for more than 18 years, and Monsanto, where he worked for seven years before that." Nonetheless, Pruitt enthusiastically endorsed Wright's nomination.
March 30, 2018, CNN: Taxpayers paid for Pruitt’s 24/7 security detail during his personal trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl. Pruitt’s security team accompanied him on trips home to Oklahoma as well as on a family vacation to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl, according to a letter that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General and shared with CNN.
April 2, 2018, Wash. Post: EPA staff looked into the possibility of leasing a private jet for Pruitt’s travel. Pruitt’s aides contacted NetJets, a company that leases private planes, about "leasing a private jet on a month-to-month basis" to accommodate Pruitt’s travel needs. After receiving NetJets’ quote of about $100,000 a month, senior officials objected and the plan was abandoned.
April 3, 2018, The Atlantic: The White House told Pruitt he could not give two of his closest aides a pay raise, but he used a loophole to do it anyway. In March, Pruitt sought permission from the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office for substantial pay increases for two of his closest aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp. The White House said no. Pruitt then exploited a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act to increase Greenwalt’s salary from $107,435 to $164,200 and Hupp’s salary from $86,460 to $114,590.
April 3, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt may have violated ethics rules by having his aide research housing arrangements for his family. Millan Hupp, whose salary Pruitt boosted by 33 percent against the White House’s wishes, did considerable legwork to help Pruitt and his wife find a home last summer. This may have been an ethics violation, as federal officials are barred from having their staff do personal tasks for them, according to ethics experts.
April 3, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt abused a little-known loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act to hire loyalists and ex-lobbyists. In 1977, Congress passed an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act allowing the EPA to hire expert personnel without Senate or White House approval. The section was added to ensure the agency could hire the staff it needed to protect public health, but Pruitt broke from tradition and used the provision to “bring in former lobbyists along with young spokesmen and schedulers,” according to The Washington Post. Pruitt’s controversial hires included loyalists from his home state of Oklahoma, former industry lobbyists such as Nancy Beck, and James Hewitt, the son of radio host and MSNBC personality Hugh Hewitt -- one of Pruitt's most ardent public defenders. The Post reported that "ethics experts say hiring lobbyists through the provision breaks with some of Trump’s ethics rules."
April 5, 2018, CBS News: Pruitt asked to use vehicle siren during non-emergency, reassigned staffer who objected. Several weeks after taking his position as head of the EPA, Pruitt was stuck in D.C. traffic and asked to use his vehicle's lights and sirens to get to an official appointment more quickly, sources told CBS News. According to CBS, “The lead agent in charge of his security detail advised him that sirens were to be used only in emergencies. Less than two weeks later that agent was removed from Pruitt's detail, reassigned to a new job within the EPA.”
April 5, 2018, ABC News: EPA improperly paid for repair to Pruitt's condo door, congresswoman says. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), who sits on the subcommittee that oversees the EPA’s budget, took issue with the EPA using agency funds to repair a door in Pruitt’s condo after members of his security detail broke it down when they believed a napping Pruitt was unresponsive. “I know that Congress appropriates money for the EPA to protect human health and the environment – not for repairs to the administrator's residence,” McCollum wrote in a letter to the EPA.
April 5, 2018, NY Times: Pruitt reassigned and demoted EPA officials who questioned his spending. Four career EPA employees and one Trump administration political appointee were demoted or reassigned after they confronted Pruitt and expressed concerns over his excessive spending on furniture, travel, and his security detail.
April 5, 2018, Salon: Pruitt was involved in a questionable real estate deal while serving as Oklahoma attorney general. Documents obtained by the nonprofit watchdog group the Center for Media and Democracy revealed that in 2011, Pruitt, then-attorney general of Oklahoma, and his wife flipped a Tulsa home for a $70,000 profit after buying it just days before a court ruled that it had been fraudulently transferred. Kevin Hern, a major campaign donor to Pruitt, bought the house through a dummy corporation. According to Salon, “Evidence suggests that Pruitt planned the quick turnaround on the property in advance.”
April 5 and 6, 2018, Politico/Politico: Pruitt was late paying his rent and “overstayed his welcome” at the lobbyist-linked condo. Pruitt was sometimes slow in paying rent to his lobbyist landlords. He also stayed in the condo longer than initially agreed. The original $50-a-night rental agreement was supposed to be for just six weeks, but Pruitt ended up using the condo for about six months. Politico reported, “The couple, Vicki and Steve Hart, became so frustrated by their lingering tenant that they eventually pushed him out and changed their locks.”
April 6 and 9, 2018, Wash. Post/The Atlantic: Doubts cast on Pruitt’s claim that he did not approve controversial pay raises. During an April 4 interview with Fox News correspondent Ed Henry, Pruitt claimed that he did not approve controversial pay raises for his aides Greenwalt and Hupp and had learned about the raises only when the media first reported on them. But on April 6, the Post reported that two EPA officials and a White House official “told The Post that the administrator instructed staff to award substantial pay boosts to both women.” Additionally, administration officials told The Atlantic that an email exchange between Greenwalt and EPA human resources “suggests Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt personally signed off on a controversial pay raise.” The day after The Atlantic’s article came out, EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson took responsibility for the pay raises, issuing a statement reading, “Administrator Pruitt had zero knowledge of the amount of the raises, nor the process by which they transpired. These kind of personnel actions are handled by EPA's HR officials, Presidential Personnel Office and me.”
April 10, 2018, Wash. Post/Politico: EPA staffers questioned the justification for Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail, and one was then fired. Sens. Whitehouse and Carper sent a letter to the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee calling for a congressional inquiry into Pruitt’s 24/7 security detail. In their letter, the senators cited several internal EPA documents that questioned the rationale for Pruitt’s detail, highlighting in particular a February 14 assessment by the EPA’s Office of Homeland Security that concluded that the justification for Pruitt’s security detail (emphasis in original) “DOES NOT employ sound analysis or articulate relevant ‘threat specific’ information appropriate to draw any resource or level of threat conclusions regarding the protection posture for the Administrator.” Politico reported that one of the EPA career officials who drafted the assessment, Mario Caraballo, was removed from his post on April 10. On the same day, The New York Times also reported that the EPA “has been examining posts on Twitter and other social media about Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, to justify his extraordinary and costly security measures.” Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Times that the EPA may have violated federal law if the agency was aggressively monitoring Pruitt’s critics.
April 10, 2018, HuffPost: As EPA head, Pruitt has met with dozens of his former campaign donors. An analysis conducted by the nonprofit MapLight found that Pruitt “has met with more than three dozen organizations that donated to his past campaigns and political committees in the last year,” HuffPost reported. “The donors include major oil and gas companies, electricity providers, coal producers, and conservative think tanks. At least 14 of the meetings were with organizations from Oklahoma, where Pruitt served as attorney general from 2011-16.”
April 12, 2018, Politico Pro/Mother Jones: EPA staff were concerned about Pruitt’s misleading statements on emissions standards. Emails obtained by Greenpeace via the Freedom of Information Act showed that EPA experts were worried about Pruitt spreading “troubling” and “inaccurate” information in his justification for rolling back Obama-era auto emissions standards. Agency staffers pointed out multiple inaccuracies in Pruitt’s March 20 USA Today op-ed, including Pruitt’s claim that Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards “have pushed manufacturing and jobs to Mexico” -- a claim contradicted by the EPA’s own analysis and many other reports. To support his argument, Pruitt cited an analysis written by an author with no background in CAFE from the now-defunct National Center for Policy Analysis.
April 12, 2018, NY Times: Lawmakers demand information about Pruitt's travel habits and luxury hotel stays. Five Democratic lawmakers sent Pruitt a letter seeking documents related to additional spending abuses after their staff members met with Pruitt’s dismissed former chief of staff, Kevin Chmielewski. According to the letter, Chmielewski revealed that Pruitt insisted on staying in luxury hotels priced above allowable limits and pressed for flights on airlines not listed on the government’s approved list so that he could earn more frequent flier miles. Chmielewski also told congressional investigators that Pruitt would direct staff to schedule trips for him to fly back home to Oklahoma and desired locations, telling them, “Find me something to do.”
April 12, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt used four different email addresses at EPA. Pruitt has used four different email accounts during his time as EPA administrator, according to an agency official and a letter sent by Sens. Merkley and Carper to the EPA's inspector general. Pruitt’s use of multiple email accounts has prompted “concerns among agency lawyers that the EPA has not disclosed all the documents it would normally release to the public under federal records requests,” according to the Post. On April 17, the Post reported that Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) will examine whether Pruitt is fully complying with public records requests.
April 17, 2018, Wash. Post: Pruitt upgraded to larger vehicle with bulletproof seat covers. In June last year, Pruitt upgraded his official vehicle to a larger, more high-end Chevy Suburban equipped with bullet-resistant seat covers. Federal records show that the Suburban cost $10,200 to lease for the first year and that the lease included an extra $300 a month worth of additional upgrades.
April 18, 2018, NY Times: Pruitt faces multiple investigations into his ethics and use of taxpayer money. Pruitt is the subject of multiple investigations by the EPA’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, and the House Oversight Committee, a Times guide to Pruitt’s investigations revealed. The newest investigation, examining Pruitt’s use of his security detail during personal trips to the Rose Bowl, Disneyland, and basketball games, “brings the number of investigations into Mr. Pruitt’s use of taxpayer money and possible ethics violations to 10,” the Times reported.
April 19, 2018, Reuters: EPA spent $45,000 to fly aides to Australia in advance of a Pruitt trip that was later canceled. Pruitt sent two aides and three security agents on business-class flights to Australia last August, at a cost of about $45,000, to do advance work for a trip the administrator planned to take, EPA officials told Reuters. The trip was canceled when Pruitt decided to travel instead to Texas to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. It has not been rescheduled.
April 21, 2018, NY Times: Pruitt’s partners in ethically questionable behavior in Oklahoma now work for him at EPA. New York Times reporters examined Pruitt’s career in Oklahoma and identified multiple instances of excessive spending and ethics lapses, noting that “many of the pitfalls he has encountered in Washington have echoes in his past.” The article focused on Pruitt's purchase of a lobbyist-owned home in Oklahoma City when Pruitt was a state senator. According to real estate and other public records, Pruitt purchased the home “at a steep discount of about $100,000” from its prior price through a shell company formed with his business partner and law school friend, Kenneth Wagner. Pruitt did not disclose the house in his financial disclosure forms at the time, “a potential violation of the state’s ethics rules,” according to the Times. Years later, when he was the state's attorney general, Pruitt awarded more than $600,000 worth of state contracts to Wagner’s law firm from 2011 to 2017. Another business associate, Albert Kelly, led the bank that issued the mortgage for the home. After taking the reins at the EPA, Pruitt gave high-ranking positions within the agency to both Wagner and Kelly.