Pruitt Resets The Ethics Bar
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Scott Pruitt was head of the Environmental Protection Agency for 16 months. And during his short tenure, he became entangled in a number of government ethics rules, which now start to look a little bit ragged. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Scott Pruitt's ethics are the subject of somewhere between 12 and 18 investigations, audits and inquiries. It's hard to know for sure because only some of the cases are public. The alleged violations include misuse of federal funds and federal employees, undisclosed contact with lobbyists and retaliation against whistleblowers.
LARRY NOBLE: I think we really do have a dysfunctional ethics system.
OVERBY: Washington ethics lawyer Larry Noble said Pruitt could do all this because, Noble says, President Trump doesn't care much about ethics but cares deeply about reining in the EPA. The result - damage to federal ethics rules, which depend heavily on voluntary compliance.
NOBLE: What is it going to take now to have the president publicly ask somebody to leave? What is it going to take next time? Is Pruitt the new standard?
OVERBY: Not everyone buys into this analysis.
ERIC WANG: I think the fate of the ethics laws in our country are strong. And I think Scott Pruitt's resignation and controversy surrounding the allegations against him demonstrate that.
OVERBY: Washington lawyer Eric Wang, also an ethics expert, said the Pruitt case is a display of Washington power politics, not a breakdown in ethics.
WANG: Scott Pruitt's detractors on the Democratic side were unable to force him out based solely on his policy agenda, of course, which the White House and Republican lawmakers strongly supported.
OVERBY: Wang said that led the left to try a different strategy.
WANG: They looked to these other issues - these personal issues that - these ethics issues to really force Republicans to put pressure on him to step down.
OVERBY: And it wasn't just Democrats bringing the pressure. President Trump himself may have gotten fed up with the accounts of Pruitt's problems. Don Fox was acting director of the Office of Government Ethics between 2011 and 2013.
DON FOX: Scott Pruitt's misdeeds came to light for a number of reasons. One of those are the fact that his own political aides, at various points, had had enough.
OVERBY: But now, Fox said, the ethics system is going to need some fixing up.
FOX: I think the rebuilding will come with, honestly, with different leadership.
OVERBY: At EPA, that would mean a new administrator with a commitment to ethics. But actually, Fox said, the whole executive branch needs help.
FOX: It's going to take different leadership at the top, and that means a different occupant in the White House who takes government ethics, frankly, as seriously as either President Obama did, or as President Bush did before him.
OVERBY: Meanwhile, Fox noted that Trump family businesses are still active overseas, raising serious questions about White House conflicts of interest.
FOX: And I think that some of that has gotten lost in the news cycle with almost the daily revelations of, what has Scott Pruitt done now?
OVERBY: Fox said that without Pruitt or some other distraction, those big questions about Trump Enterprises might get more attention. But where or how far that would lead is another question. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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