Scott Pruitt's crowd-sourced legal defense fund could become "snake pit for conflicts"

His plan to crowdfund his legal expenses might be another way for lobbyists to curry favor
May 18, 2018, 11:00am

Scott Pruitt’s mounting ethics and spending scandals involve unnecessary security, luxury travel, and close relationships with lobbyists. He’s hung onto his job and the president’s support so far, but at a Senate budget hearing Wednesday, the EPA chief admitted he’s currently soliciting donations to lawyer up — which could create another conflict of interest with lobbyists.

In a response to Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Pruitt admitted he’s appointed a lawyer to set up a legal defense fund where supporters can deposit cash for his legal fees. And he’s going to need it: He’s facing a total of at least 12 investigations about eight types of misconduct, including excessive spending on unnecessary security, first-class travel, office renovations, crossing ethical boundaries with lobbyists, and giving unauthorized raises to favorite aides.

Advertisement

It’s not unprecedented for government officials to seek donations from the public for legal fees. Bill Clinton raised $8.7 million from 116,400 donors to fight a series of investigations, and Trump administration officials entangled in the Russia investigation have a “Patriot Legal Expense Fund”. But Pruitt’s already under fire for giving industry too much influence, and experts warn his plan to crowdfund legal expenses could create yet another avenue for industry to buy favor at the agency.

“This becomes a snake pit for conflicts of interest,” said Sen. Van Hollen, a Democrat. “Without complete transparency, people who want to influence the EPA administration to do what they want could do so through this.”

Rules governing these defense funds are messy. In the hearing, Pruitt was pressed to reject anonymous donations, but he made no hard promises. However, the White House has said it won’t allow anonymous payments, while Office of Government Ethics rules prohibit the fund from taking money from companies or lobbyists that have business with the EPA. The OGE also recommends Pruitt not know the identity of his donors, even if that information is publicly available, though it admits it’s probably impossible to stop him from finding out.

The main concern for Harvard Law School professor Richard Lazarus is transparency, not the fact that Pruitt has a legal defense fund in the first place. “The public has to know exactly who is giving the money – the actual person and not some shell entity,” he said. “Pruitt has to recuse himself from any sort of decision-making with those entities.”

Some 170 Democrats and a handful of House Republicans have called for Pruitt to resign. Lazarus, too, disagrees with Pruitt’s decision to stay and fight: “It gets to the point where you have to ask, ‘Is he too much of a distraction for the agency to be able to fulfill its mandate?’”

The EPA and law firm reported to be handling the legal defense fund did not reply to VICE News’ request for comment.

Cover image: Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), testifies before the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee during a hearing on the FY2019 Budget Request for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C on May 16, 2018. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)