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EPA ethics official argues Scott Pruitt's condo rental wasn't ethics breach

Last Updated Apr 4, 2018 11:57 PM EDT

In a memo obtained by CBS News, the Environmental Protection Agency's Ethics Official and Deputy Counsel concluded that EPA Administrator's Scott Pruitt's housing arrangement did not breach any ethical violations or constitute a gift. 

The memo, signed by EPA Deputy Counsel Kevin Minoli, says that the EPA's investigation determined that "when checked against the price of traditional month-to-month rentals that would most likely offer increased privacy and exclusivity of use, a converted amount of $1,500 for Tenant's portion of the rent under the lease is within the range of amounts charged for locations no further than three blocks away." 

The EPA told CBS News in a statement that the April 4 memo provides the reasoning and documentation for Friday's memo from EPA career ethics officials, "who determined that the condo lease was lawful, based on market information for similar rentals on Capitol Hill."

First reported by ABC News, Pruitt came under new scrutiny last week after it was revealed that he lived in a Capitol Hill apartment owned by the wife of a fossil fuels lobbyist. Pruitt rented the space for $50 a night but only paid for nights that he slept there. 

"There is no connection between decisions Administrator Pruitt has made at EPA and any place he has lived. Any attempt to draw that link is false," The EPA said in a statement to CBS Wednesday night.

EPA ethics officials ruled that the rental agreement was in compliance with ethics regulations, though administration officials privately admit the deal was unusually favorable to the tenant.

CBS News first reported that the president spoke with Pruitt Monday night to offer his support, and that Chief of Staff John Kelly called Tuesday morning to reiterate the president's sentiments.  

As recently as this weekend, administration officials told CBS News that Pruitt would likely survive the onslaught of bad press. 

The tide changed on Wednesday when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders commended Pruitt on his performance but would not say that the president had confidence in the administrator.

"We're reviewing the situation," Sanders told reporters at the White House briefing. Asked whether Mr. Trump still had confidence in Pruitt, Sanders replied that the president "thinks he's done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front, but again we take this seriously and we're looking into it."

"I'm dumbfounded that that's controversial," Pruitt told the Washington Examiner in an interview on Wednesday morning.

"When you think of the townhouse, the rent last year, the owner of that is an Oklahoman," Pruitt added. "I've known him for years. He's the outside counsel for the National Rifle Association, has no clients that are before this agency, nor does his wife have any clients that have appeared before this agency.

"I've had ethics counsel here at the agency, the office of general counsel and ethics officials review the lease. They've actually looked at the lease. Most of the people who are criticizing me haven't. If you look at the lease it's very clear it's market value."

Here's the memo, including the lease, obtained by CBS News:

Pruitt also acknowledged another scandal on Wednesday, which had been first reported by The Atlantic – that his office skirted the White House to give two of his staffers significant pay raises by exploiting a quirk in the Safe Drinking Water Act that allows the EPA to hire staff without external approval.

"My staff did and I found about that yesterday, and I changed it," Pruitt told Fox News.