Last Updated Mar 30, 2018 4:10 PM EDT
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency paid just $50 a night to stay in a Capitol Hill condominium linked to a prominent Washington lobbyist whose firm represents a roster of fossil fuel companies.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt paid for a single bedroom in the building on a leafy street about a block from the U.S. Capitol, staying for about six months in 2017 during nights he was in Washington. Records show three units inside the building are listed as belonging to a corporation co-owned by the wife of J. Steven Hart, the chairman and CEO of the powerhouse lobbying firm Williams and Jensen PLLC.
The firm's clients include Exxon Mobil Corp. and the major liquefied natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy Inc. — companies that have billions at stake in regulatory decisions over which Pruitt presides. Records show in at least one case Pruitt met in his EPA office with a lobbyist from Hart's firm while he was renting the room. ABC News first reported Pruitt's former living situation.
Justina Fugh, an ethics lawyer at EPA, told The Associated Press on Friday Pruitt's rental agreement allowed him to only pay for nights he occupied the room, totaling about $6,000 in payments over the term of the lease.
A Republican who previously served as the state attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt has long been a champion of the oil and gas industry. In the year he has served as the Trump administration's top environmental official, Pruitt has moved to scrap, gut or replace numerous environmental regulations opposed by the industry while boosting the continued burning of fossil fuels, which is the primary cause of climate change. Heenvironmental information from the EPA's website.
In December, Pruitt and members of his staff spent about $40,000 in taxpayer funds to fly to Morocco to help encourage the North African kingdom to import liquefied natural gas from the United States. Cheniere, the lobbying client of Hart's firm, is currently the only exporter of liquefied natural gas from the continental United States.
In a statement to The Associated Press, Hart said Pruitt is a casual friend from Oklahoma who moved into the building in early 2017. Hart said he had no contact with Pruitt for many months, other than a brief exchange at the National Prayer Breakfast in February.
"Pruitt signed a market based, short-term lease for a condo owned partially by my wife," Hart said, according to a statement released by his firm. "Pruitt paid all rent owed as agreed to in the lease. My wife does not, and has not ever lobbied the EPA on any matters."
Hart's wife, Vicki Hart, is also a lobbyist, focusing on health care issues.
Steven Hart's firm did not respond to questions about how much Pruitt paid. Market-rate rents in the area typically run more than $3,000 for two bedrooms.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox confirmed that Pruitt did rent a bedroom in the condo, although Wilcox didn't say how much Pruitt paid for it.
"While transitioning to Washington, Administrator Pruitt signed a lease to rent a bedroom in a condo and he moved out at the end of July," Wilcox told CBS News.
EPA Senior Counsel for Ethics Justina Fugh concluded it wasn't a prohibited gift.
"I don't conclude that this is a prohibited gift at all," she told CBS News. "It was a routine business transaction and permissible even if from a personal friend."
The EPA would not provide further details beyond that.
But former director of the Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub, who has strongly criticized spending among President Trump's Cabinet officials, said he isn't so sure renting a property from a lobbyist would constitute a gift.
Pruitt has been under increasing scrutiny for this frequent taxpayer-funded travel, which has included first-class airline tickets. Though federal regulations typically require federal officials to fly in coach, the EPA chief has said he needed to sit in premium seats due to security concerns. Pruitt told CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett in February that.
Pruitt's EPA travel has also often included weekend-long layovers at his home in Tulsa. The EPA chief is widely mentioned in Oklahoma as a possible successor to Sen. James Inhofe, the state's octogenarian GOP senator who is expected to retire at the end of his current term.
Among the clients at Hart's lobbying firm is OGE Energy Corp., an electricity company serving Oklahoma and Arkansas. According to federal disclosure reports, the company paid Williams and Jensen $400,000 in 2017 to lobby on issues that included EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Copies of Pruitt's daily calendar obtained by the AP through a public records request show that Pruitt held a March 2017 meeting in his EPA office with OGE Chairman and CEO Sean Trauschke and company vice president Paul Renfrow. The meeting was arranged at the request of George Baker, a registered lobbyist from Hart's firm, who also attended.
In October, EPA announced it, an Obama-era regulation that sought to limit planet-warming carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants like those operated by OGE. EPA has also moved to scrap regulations cutting power plant emissions of such toxic substances as mercury, as well as tighter standards on dumps containing coal ash.
Records show Pruitt has had a long relationship with OGE. Campaign finance reports from Oklahoma show more than three dozen OGE executives donated to Pruitt's 2014 re-election campaign for state attorney general, even though he was running without a Democratic opponent. OGE chairman Peter Delaney contributed $3,500, while Trauschke kicked in $2,500 and Renfrow contributed $1,000.
Environmental groups on Thursday pointed to news of Pruitt's living arrangements as further evidence he caters to polluters, and they renewed their calls for him to resign.
"Scott Pruitt, who is supposed to protect our families from pollution, literally lived in a fossil fuel lobbyist's house," said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. "The administrator of the EPA should stand up to corporate polluters, not live in their homes while pushing their agenda at every turn."
Associated Press writer Tim Talley contributed from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.