National News

EPA Chief Met Lobbyist Tied to Rental

Posted April 21, 2018 4:30 p.m. EDT
Updated April 21, 2018 4:32 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, met personally last year with J. Steven Hart, the lobbyist whose wife had rented him a $50-a-night Capitol Hill condo, a disclosure that contradicts earlier statements that EPA lobbying by Hart had not occurred.

The meeting was set up on behalf of an executive associated with Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer. Previously, Hart and his lobbying firm, Williams & Jensen, had maintained that Hart never lobbied Pruitt in 2017, when Pruitt was living in a condo co-owned by Hart’s wife, or in the time since then.

Late Friday, Williams & Jensen revealed in a filing that Hart was a registered lobbyist for Smithfield Foods in the first quarter of 2018 and said that he lobbied the EPA on the company’s behalf. Details on the filing were first reported by The Hill.

Then, on Saturday, a spokesman for Hart, Ryan Williams, told The New York Times that Hart had met with Pruitt in 2017, along with Dennis Treacy, a former Smithfield executive vice president. Treacy now serves on the board of directors of the Smithfield Foundation, which the food company describes as its philanthropic arm with a focus of combating hunger.

Both Smithfield Foods and Hart dispute that the meeting was lobbying for the food company. However, the fact that a previously undisclosed meeting took place, around the same time when Pruitt was renting a $50-a-night Capitol Hill condo from Hart’s wife, is the latest example of Pruitt’s professional actions overlapping with personal relationships in ways that his critics have been quick to call inappropriate.

A spokesman for Smithfield Foods said that the work Hart did was on behalf of Treacy personally, as he is also a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a government entity that works to improve the water quality in the largest estuary in the United States.

The EPA has its own Chesapeake Bay program office, and it has been working for more than a decade with area states and the District of Columbia to restore the bay’s water quality.

“Smithfield Foods, Inc. has learned Williams & Jensen has advocated in support of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) programs to help the Chesapeake Bay,” the company said in a statement Saturday. “The objective, while laudable, was not undertaken at the direction of or on behalf of Smithfield Foods. These activities were conducted at the request of a then former executive and current Smithfield Foundation board member, Dennis Treacy, in his personal capacity.”

Hart disputed Saturday that his story had changed, saying in a written statement that his work with Treacy was not compensated and not on behalf of Smithfield. “I assisted a friend who serves on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, and this is inaccurately being tied to Smithfield Foods,” Hart said. “I was not paid for this assistance and any suggestion that I lobbied for Smithfield Foods is inaccurate.”

The Smithfield Foods disclosure was made the same day that Hart announced he was stepping down as chairman of Williams & Jensen — instead of waiting until his planned November retirement — citing the negative publicity that had been caused by the Capitol Hill condo rental to Pruitt.

“Considering the last couple of weeks, I think it is easier on my family and the firm to expedite my departure,” Hart wrote in a note to his work colleagues Friday. “I am very much looking forward to devoting myself to an independent legal practice, some strategic business counseling for a few clients, golf, and shooting (not in that order),” he wrote.

No details were released by Williams & Jensen or Smithfield about the meeting between Hart and Pruitt other than that it took place in early 2017.

Patrick Creighton, the spokesman for Williams & Jensen, said in a written statement Saturday that the firm was now reviewing its 2017 lobbying disclosure statements and “will make adjustments if needed once that review is complete,” to acknowledge, if necessary, that the meeting took place.

Pruitt’s calendar from 2017 shows a short meeting Aug. 1 with Chesapeake Bay Commission leadership that does not disclose who from the organization was present. Agency officials did not respond Saturday when asked if this was the meeting that involved Hart.

A spokeswoman for the EPA, when previously asked by The Times about any lobbying by Hart, said that “there was no connection between where he lived and any decision he made.” The agency sent out that statement again Saturday when asked about the 2017 meeting with Hart.

Hart had previously been listed as a lobbyist for companies including Cheniere Energy, a natural gas company that is regulated by the EPA.