Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, facing a complaint that he had violated the law restricting political activity by federal officials, will not attend an Oklahoma GOP fundraising gala where he was slated to be keynote speaker, an administration official told InsideClimate News on Thursday.
The decision came after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel over an invitation for a $100-a-plate May 5 Oklahoma Republican Party gala that promoted the chance to see Pruitt as it solicited "sponsorships" of $2,000 to $5,000.
"You do not want to miss Pruitt at this year's OKGOP Gala, as he discusses his plans to slash regulations, bring back jobs to Oklahoma, and decrease the size of the EPA!" the invitation said. "Make sure to purchase your Gala tickets so you don't miss out on Administrator Pruitt's future plans and how he will continue to Drain the Swamp! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so buy your tickets before they sell out."
Whitehouse argued it was a violation of the Hatch Act, the 1939 law that prevents federal officials from using their office for political purposes. He said the "unmistakable impression" from the invitation was that by purchasing a ticket or sponsorship, the attendee would have special access to a federal employee discussing planned and pending official actions. "Anything short of prohibiting his attendance will not change, in the public's perception, that the OKGOP's Gala is a 'pay-to-play' event with a federal Cabinet official," Whitehouse's complaint said.
The administration official said the decision for Pruitt not to attend the event on Tuesday night was made after realizing that the flyer for the event had been distributed by the Oklahoma GOP without an opportunity for Pruitt's office to review it. Pruitt's office worked with EPA's ethics office to ensure that attendance at the event would comply with the law, and one of the rules had been that EPA be able to review the invitation in advance, the official said.
Brendan Fischer, director of the federal and FEC reform program at the Campaign Legal Center, said that, in the past, cabinet officials of both Democratic and Republican administrations had attended political fundraisers and other events. But they had gotten around the Hatch Act requirements simply by making sure that their official positions were not mentioned on the invitations, and that they were referred to by a neutral title, such as "the Honorable," instead of by their official cabinet position.
"Because Pruitt's official name and his role in the federal government was made very clear on the invitation, this does appear to be a pretty clear case" of running afoul of the law, said Fischer. "The Hatch Act is very clear that a federal employee such as the EPA administrator cannot solicit a political contribution and cannot use his position for solicitation of political contributions.
"It's surprising in some ways that they've gotten into this situation, since the prohibition is easily evaded by omitting the official title," Fischer said.
Pruitt, who took over as President Donald Trump's EPA chief after burnishing a reputation as a fierce critic and legal adversary of the agency when he was Oklahoma attorney general, faced ethics questions during his confirmation hearing and since taking office. Senate Democrats have asked the EPA inspector general to investigate whether the agency's conflicts of interest procedures are adequate for addressing Pruitt's past ties to the industries that he is now regulating.
In 2011, Pruitt wrote a letter urging the EPA to drop its efforts to reduce methane emissions, later shown to have been written by Oklahoma-based fracking firm Devon Energy, a campaign donor. That incident was detailed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by The New York Times that probed the Republican Attorneys General Association and its ties with industry. Pruitt has said working with a constituent on such matters was proper for his office.
Pruitt headed a nonprofit group, the Rule of Law Defense Fund, associated with the Republican Attorneys General Association and funded in part by the Koch brothers, petrochemical billionaires who lobby heavily against environmental regulations.
Pruitt also had ties to a super-PAC, Liberty 2.0, which its officials only agreed to disclose the week before Trump's inauguration. The disclosure came after questions were raised about the unprecedented opportunity it created for industry interests to make unlimited financial contributions to support a sitting EPA administrator.
The Oklahoma Bar Association is also investigating an ethics complaint by an environmental group alleging Pruitt misled a Senate committee about his use of a private email address during his tenure as Oklahoma's attorney general. Before Pruitt was confirmed as EPA administrator, he was forced by an Oklahoma court to release thousands of emails that a judge ruled had been withheld by his office when he was Oklahoma AG in violation of the state's open records law.
Whitehouse said the decision for Pruitt not to attend the event is "the least he can do." He said the Office of Special Council should still investigate to determine whether the EPA administrator ran afoul of the Hatch Act. "The American people need to know whether he is using his position at EPA to promote the political actors who support him."