The media, and environmental groups like mine, have been putting a lot of focus on Scott Pruitt’s ethical problems.
You may have heard that Pruitt – head of the Environmental Protection Agency – charged taxpayers $1,500 for a dozen personalized pens, sent government workers to buy his favorite hand lotion, and had an assistant inquire about the purchase of a used mattress from a Trump hotel.
But do these scandals really matter?
Emphatically, yes. Both because government officials should act ethically and because his actions often seem to have a deeper connection to policy choices.
We see five types of Pruitt scandals:
Pruitt flew first class at taxpayers’ expense, asked his aides to find excuses for him to travel to exotic locations, and used sirens to get through traffic more quickly on his way to his favorite French restaurant.
Some of this is wasteful and improper, and some of it creates real substantive problems. Those arise when Pruitt takes perks from people with vested interests in his decisions.
He took a below-market rate condo deal from a lobbyist couple, whose clients may want him to go easier on some industries. He also took courtside basketball tickets from a coal baron who wants the EPA to allow more carbon pollution from coal plants.
Scott Pruitt is a very ambitious politician, and it’s been widely reported that he wants to be a U.S. senator and eventually president.
He’s using his position to make political contacts, frequently traveling to his home state and to other politically important places at taxpayers’ expense. He seems to be working to curry favor with well-funded interests, including those in the oil and gas industry that supported his rise so far.
3. Conflicts of interest
Pruitt has put people with obvious conflicts of interest in key government positions. He hired someone straight from the chemical industry’s lobbying arm to oversee and undermine a new chemical safety law.
This official recently proposed rules that instruct the EPA to ignore 68,000 pounds of toxic chemicals when evaluating risk. His deputy administrator, meanwhile, was a coal lobbyist before joining the agency.
You’ve probably heard far less about the “glider truck” loophole than Pruitt’s other problems. But this rule – which principally benefits one company with whom Pruitt met – creates an exception in clean air rules for super-polluting trucks.
This loophole will cause about 4,000 additional deaths from air pollution-related illness. Pruitt also wants to weaken clean car standards, rules about coal ash pollution in streams, and methane pollution limits. All will cause illness, foul our air and water, and hurt our economy.
Mattresses, pens, lotion.
For those who are cynical about government: This is not normal. Almost all of Pruitt’s predecessors were ethical, serious people focused on the EPA’s mission.
The real scandal of the Trump-Pruitt EPA, of course, is that it is systematically weakening clean air, clean water and chemical safety rules that will result in more asthma attacks, cancer and other illnesses.
But the scandals spilling out of Pruitt’s office are also a big part of the story, creating an oily slick that is staining America’s environmental legacy.