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Besieged EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigns

Updated July 5, 2018 - 5:25 pm

WASHINGTON — Beleaguered by reports of wasteful spending, potential conflicts of interest and ethical lapses, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned Thursday.

President Donald Trump announced the resignation on Twitter as he was flying to Montana for a Make America Great Again rally. He said that Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, would become acting administrator starting Monday.

Pruitt, 50, has been under siege for months as news outlets reported on his first class plane tickets, the $50 a day rent he paid the wife of lobbyist for a room in a Capitol Hill condo and charges that he pressed EPA staff to act as personal assistants.

According to news reports, a former EPA aide testified that Pruitt asked her to help his wife get a high-paying Washington job. By some counts there are 14 federal probes looking into Pruitt’s big spending and possible conflicts of interest.

Despite the scandals, Trump has approved of Pruitt’s efforts to reduce regulations that the administration says curb business growth. In his announcement of Pruitt’s departure on Twitter, Trump said, “Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job.”

In a resignation letter, Pruitt thanked Trump for appointing him and indicated that media reports played a role in his decision to step down.

‘Unrelenting attacks’

“Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your Administration,” Pruitt wrote. “However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.”

Just last week Pruitt was eating at a teahouse in Washington when a teacher cradling a toddler in her arms confronted him about his skepticism on climate change. Kristin Mink later posted video of the episode on social media, which went viral.

Higher-profile critics of Pruitt’s tenure at the federal agency charged with protecting the environment celebrated his departure.

“It’s about time,” tweeted former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has made climate change a signature issue. “He will go down in the history books as the worst EPA administrator we’ve ever had.”

“Took you too long. Still a very long way to go fully #DrainTheSwamp,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Twitter.

But climate change skeptic Marc Morano, a former Republican political aide who runs the website ClimateDepot.com, said in a statement that “Pruitt will go down as the best EPA chief in history.” He noted that he was “the key man urging Trump to get out of the UN Paris climate pact” and roll back clean air regulations introduced under President Barack Obama.

Other Trump Cabinet members have departed under pressure for ethical lapses. Trump’s first Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin left their posts after front-page stories about their high-ticket travel on the taxpayer dime.

Backed by energy industry

But Pruitt survived an avalanche of such stories, partly because the energy industry and conservative thought leaders saw him as a crusader curbing over-regulation within the agency, even if they privately bemoaned his bad judgment.

“On behalf of CEI, we thank Scott Pruitt for his outstanding service as EPA administrator, and we regret that personal troubles got in the way,” Myron Ebell of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute lamented in a statement.

“Pruitt was the media target like no other because he has dared to actually reverse the green agenda in D.C.,” Morano charged. He believes the press put Pruitt under a microscope “because his EPA reform agenda is their biggest threat.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez would have none of it. “Donald Trump made a campaign promise to drain the swamp. Instead, he brought in people like Scott Pruitt – one of the most corrupt Cabinet members in modern American history. For more than a year, Pruitt abused his power and shamelessly wasted taxpayer dollars, and Trump stood by him in scandal after scandal.”

A former Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt seemed oblivious to the notion that he should spend taxpayer dollars carefully to avoid ethics complaints and federal investigations.

In December he took a trip with an entourage to Morocco to promote natural gas exports that critics contended had nothing to do with the EPA portfolio.

Aides also claimed that Pruitt needed to fly first-class because he frequently was threatened. The administrator tried to close himself off from scrutiny by putting a $43,000 soundproof booth at the EPA – a purchase which the General Accounting Office deemed illegal.

“It’s not surprising to see somebody move along with this kind of attention,” energy consultant Matt Dempsey told the Review-Journal.

Dempsey, who used to work with Wheeler as a staffer for Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., predicted Pruitt’s replacement will fare better because he works across the aisle.

“Andrew is not going to have any of those problems,” Dempsey said. “Andrew’s going to do everything by the book.”

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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