Lobbyist Whose Wife Rented a Condo to Pruitt Failed to Disclose EPA Lobbying
Posted June 1, 2018 9:52 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — The lobbyist whose wife rented a $50-a-night condo to Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has revised his disclosure reports after his firm concluded he had not properly disclosed additional efforts to influence Pruitt and the agency — including appeals when Pruitt was living in the condo.
The lobbying firm, Williams & Jensen, has refiled lobbying disclosure reports from 2017 to acknowledge that Steve Hart, the firm’s former chairman, lobbied the EPA on behalf of Coca-Cola and a government board from Puerto Rico helping the island address its fiscal debts. Lobbyists are legally required to disclose which agencies they target and the topic of their lobbying work.
The revisions come after an outside review of the activities of Hart, whose wife, Vicki Hart, rented the condo to Pruitt. The EPA chief lived in the unit from shortly after his confirmation in February 2017 until August 2017.
Previously, both Steve Hart and Pruitt — in defending the condo lease as not representing a conflict of interest — had said Hart never lobbied Pruitt. Earlier, however, emails released as part of congressional investigation into Pruitt in April showed that Hart in fact had met with Pruitt in July 2017, on behalf of a former Smithfield Foods executive who then served on the Smithfield Foundation board.
New emails provided Friday to The New York Times show that Hart contacted Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, and Sydney Hupp, who was then a senior scheduling aide to Pruitt, on behalf of Coca-Cola in March 2017. Hupp has since left the agency.
“Coke has enormous expertise in clean water development since you cannot bottle Coke with dirty water,” wrote Hart, in an email sent to Jackson and Hupp, as he encouraged Pruitt to meet with Muhtar Kent, the chief executive and chairman of the board for the Coca-Cola Co.
Asked about the email, Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the EPA, downplayed the significance of the lobbying appeal. “This meeting involving Coca-Cola and their clean water steward did not occur,” Wilcox said in a written statement. “The request was submitted and it went unfilled.”
The Harts declined to comment.
Separately, according to the firm, Hart asked staff at the lobbying firm to reach out to both the EPA and the White House on behalf of Coca-Cola to arrange a meeting with staff-level aides to discuss issues related to clean-water supplies. Hart also contacted the agency on an issue related to the use of hydrofluorocarbons, which were once widely used as coolants, on behalf of Coke.
Hart also made previously undisclosed contact with the EPA on behalf of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, according to the emails. Hart made the contact after Hurricane Maria struck the island in September, to urge the agency to get involved in efforts to ensure there were sufficient drinking water supplies on the island. These emails were sent after Pruitt had moved out of the condo.
Williams & Jensen also retroactively revised its 2017 filings Friday for Smithfield Foods, as it had not previously acknowledged Hart’s intervention with Pruitt on behalf of the company and its foundation.
Coca-Cola, in a statement Friday, said that it had dropped Williams & Jensen as one of its lobbying firms. “The Coca-Cola Company is committed to the highest level of integrity in all aspects of our business, and we expect our lobbying firms to uphold that same commitment,” the company said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Puerto Rico board did not respond to requests for comment.
Williams & Jensen put out a statement late Friday acknowledging that the firm’s former chairman had failed to follow lobbying disclosure requirements.
“We pride ourselves on our reputation for exceptional client service and our commitment to operating under the highest ethical standards, so we take our obligations under the Lobbying Disclosure Act very seriously,” the statement said. “As such, following press reports of a former member of our firm engaging in lobbying activity that had not been disclosed, we engaged outside counsel to conduct a review of relevant filings.”
The firm said the investigation revealed “information that was not previously disclosed to our firm and therefore not included in the original filings. No Williams & Jensen client is in any way responsible for the incompleteness of our original filings.”
Pruitt’s rental of the Capitol Hill condo is the subject of an investigation by the EPA inspector general, one of more than a dozen separate investigations involving Pruitt or his management since he took over the agency in February 2017.
Federal ethics laws prohibit federal officials from taking gifts. Pruitt has argued the condo rental did not represent a gift, saying he paid fair market value. Pruitt is also obligated to comply with a rule called Standards of Ethical Conduct, which urges federal officials to “avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards.”