Political News

Pruitt’s Political Patron Now Questions the EPA Chief’s Ethics

Posted April 24, 2018 10:41 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, may be losing support even from his staunchest allies. His longtime political patron, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said Tuesday that he would like to see an investigation into the ethical allegations against his protégé. If any prove true, he said, that could “have an effect” on Pruitt’s job.

Inhofe said he was troubled by a recent New York Times story that detailed allegations of unchecked spending and ethics questions during Pruitt’s career as attorney general and state senator in Oklahoma.

“I’ve known him since he was in the state legislature and supported him,” Inhofe said Tuesday. “These are accusations I did not know anything about.”

It is a remarkable turn for Inhofe, who as the senior senator from Oklahoma had championed the career of Pruitt, a fellow conservative from his home state.

Inhofe, 83, who has long been known for his view that the established science of human-caused climate change is a hoax, seemed to have found a kindred spirit and possible successor in Pruitt, 49. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt built his career suing the Obama administration over environmental regulations, particularly on climate change. Pruitt is widely thought to be considering a run for Inhofe’s Senate seat when he retires.

Inhofe once flew Pruitt around the state in his personal airplane as the younger man campaigned for office. When the Trump administration nominated Pruitt to run the EPA, Inhofe gave him a glowing introductory speech at his Senate confirmation hearing.

As reports have piled up in recent weeks questioning the ethics of several of Pruitt’s decisions, including his illegal purchase of an office phone booth, his expenditures on first-class travel and his rental of a condominium linked to an energy lobbyist, Inhofe continued to support him.

But Inhofe said on Tuesday that he was now concerned enough about the allegations — particularly those of ethical lapses in Oklahoma — that he would like to see them investigated.

“I want to check and see how authentic the accusations against him are. If they are authentic it could have an effect,” he said. “But sometimes things are not all that authentic.”

The possible loss of Inhofe’s support means “that Pruitt is in big trouble,” John Feehery, a Republican strategist who worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, wrote in an email.

Ultimately, of course, Pruitt’s fate depends on President Donald Trump, who until now has continued to back his EPA chief, cheering his aggressive efforts to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations.

Asked about Pruitt on Monday, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said: “Administrator Pruitt has done a good job of implementing the president’s policies, particularly on deregulation; making the United States less energy-dependent and becoming more energy-independent. Those are good things. However, the other things certainly are something that we’re monitoring and looking at, and I’ll keep you posted.”

Inhofe said he had not spoken with Trump or Pruitt in recent days, but the president and the Oklahoma senator have a good relationship. They spoke several times by phone during Trump’s presidential campaign, and Inhofe’s influence on environmental policy is evident throughout the Trump administration: Many of his former staff members work at the White House and the EPA.

Indeed, much of Trump’s environmental agenda, like undoing EPA climate change rules and pulling the United States out of the Paris climate change accord, is taken straight from the playbook Inhofe has pushed for years on Capitol Hill.

Privately, many of the former Inhofe staff members now in the Trump administration say they are fed up with the chaos surrounding Pruitt and are more than ready to see him go. They noted that another former member of Inhofe’s staff, Andrew Wheeler, had recently been confirmed as Pruitt’s deputy and that Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, was well positioned to continue the agenda of rolling back environmental rules should Pruitt step down. Some of the former Inhofe staff members noted that they were not surprised to see their former boss raise questions about Pruitt once the allegations about Pruitt’s ethical lapses touched his home state.

“Sen. Inhofe is a very principled guy,” said Dimitri Karakitsos, who used to work for Inhofe and now represents energy companies with the Washington law firm Holland & Knight. “Despite his reputation for being an ideologue, his character is why he has such good relationships with so many people, including Democrats. He’s not the type of person to blindly support someone in any circumstance.”

Karakitsos added: “He’s big on government waste and abuse of power. If there is inappropriate behavior or misappropriation of funds, he takes that seriously, and he is a great champion and voice for the people of Oklahoma who take it seriously as well.”

Pruitt is scheduled to appear before two House committees for questioning Thursday.