EPA chief Scott Pruitt under scrutiny over condo linked to energy lobbyist | Environment

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt is under increasing pressure over a rental arrangement he had with a leading energy sector lobbyist.

Leading opposition figures went on the offensive on Sunday, the Democratic Alabama senator Doug Jones saying Pruitt was in “real trouble” and “may be on his way out” over the deal, which was first reported by ABC, Bloomberg and the Associated Press.

The Vermont independent Bernie Sanders said Pruitt, a former attorney general of Oklahoma, was “nothing more than a front man for the fossil fuel industry” and should appear before the Senate environment committee.

Pruitt was already one of a number of Trump appointees dogged by controversy over the use of public money for travel and other expenses. A professed climate science skeptic, he has nonetheless thrived in the Trump administration, slashing environmental regulations and protections often established under Barack Obama.

It has been reported that Pruitt covets the post of attorney general should Jeff Sessions, out of favour with the president over his recusal from the investigation into Russian election meddling and potential collusion between Trump aides and Moscow, become another cabinet member to be fired.

Over about six months in 2017, the AP reported this week, Pruitt paid $50 a night to stay in a Capitol Hill condominium in which three units belong to a corporation co-owned by the wife of J Steven Hart, chair and chief executive of lobbying firm Williams and Jensen.

3000 - EPA chief Scott Pruitt under scrutiny over condo linked to energy lobbyist | Environment

It has been reported that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has lived in the townhouse on Capitol Hill, which is co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist, for about six months during his first year in office. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The firm’s clients include Exxon Mobil and liquefied natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy, both with billions at stake in decisions over which Pruitt presides. At least once while renting the room, Pruitt met a lobbyist from Hart’s firm at the EPA.

The $50-per-night rate is significantly lower than most rentals on Capitol Hill. One-bedroom apartments range between $1,600 and $2,500 a month. Single rooms listed for one-night rentals average about $120. An EPA ethics lawyer told the AP that Pruitt paid only for nights he occupied the room, totaling about $6,000.

Interviewed on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Jones said: “I think he’s in real trouble, the perception is not good at all. The fact he has had controversy with expenses … is one of the things I think people are just frustrated with, with cabinet members who seem to want to use taxpayer dollars to fund their own personal lifestyle.

“And now on top of this, not just the $50 but the fact it was going to an energy lobbyist, it just looks so bad and I think he may be on his way out.”

On CBS’s Face the Nation, Sanders said: “You got a guy who’s head of the EPA now who is nothing more than a front man for the fossil fuel industry, and that is a very serious problem and the Congress has got to stand up and oppose that line of policy.”

Also on ABC, former New Jersey governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie, a leading Trump supporter, said he did not know how Pruitt could keep his job.

“If Mr Pruitt is going to go,” Christie said, “it’s because he should’ve never been there in the first place”.

Christie criticised the work of Trump’s transition team after he was removed as its leader. “This was a brutally unprofessional transition,” he said. “This was a transition that didn’t vet people for this type of judgment issues.”

Other Trump appointees to have attracted controversy over spending include housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson and interior secretary Ryan Zinke. Health secretary Tom Price resigned in September, over his use of public money for flights. Veterans affairs secretary David Shulkin, who faced controversy over travel taken with his wife but opposed privatisation of his department, left his job this week. The White House said Shulkin resigned. Shulkin said he was fired.

On Thursday, Hart said Pruitt was a casual friend from Oklahoma who moved into the building in question in early 2017. He had no contact with Pruitt for months, Hart said, other than a brief exchange at the National Prayer Breakfast in February.

The lease was “market-based, short-term”, Hart said, adding that the condo was partly owned by his wife, who he said had not lobbied the EPA. Vicki Hart is a lobbyist focusing on healthcare issues.