Investigators with EPA's internal watchdog sought out real estate advice on Scott Pruitt's condo rental.
Emails, letters and other records obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act shed more light on the EPA inspector general's investigation of the former EPA administrator's rent of a tony Capitol Hill condo tied to a lobbyist with business before the agency.
That review, which is now closed, centered on whether Pruitt paid below market rent at $50 for each night he stayed in the apartment, blocks from the Capitol, during part of 2017.
"Tomorrow, [redacted] and I are planning to speak with an appraiser that we vetted through the DOJ," said an EPA IG official in an email last July to officials with the Office of Government Ethics, asking them if they wanted to join the call.
"The purpose of the conversation [redacted] regarding Administrator Pruitt's stay at [redacted], Washington, DC."
EPA IG investigators planned to speak with a real estate appraiser to ascertain the fair market rental value of the property tied to the lobbyist, a person familiar with the investigation told E&E News.
"They were going to get factual answers to see what this was worth. That is what they were trying to do," said the person.
Nikki Tinsley, a former EPA inspector general, said, "Checking with an appraiser who has knowledge of the market seems like a standard step to determine the value of the condo rental."
"It was common for OIG to consult 'professionals' when we did not have staff with skills in a field we needed to complete an audit or investigation," she said.
It was also important that EPA IG have the Justice Department sign off on the appraiser, as well, because that would bolster the investigators' case.
"Getting an appraiser vetted by DOJ would have ensured that DOJ considered the value credible if the case were to be referred to DOJ for prosecution. In the Pruitt investigation, the investigators would want to know the value of the condo to determine value Pruitt received beyond what he paid for the rental," Tinsley said.
A person — whose name is redacted in the emails — in the EPA IG's Office of Professional Responsibility sent several of the emails. That office investigates alleged misconduct by EPA employees and is a subunit of the agency watchdog's Office of Investigations.
The investigators' timing, however, was off. The email about the appraiser was sent about an hour before President Trump announced on Twitter that he had accepted Pruitt's resignation from EPA.
"Given the recent news — do we still need to have the call?" an OGE official said about scheduling a call with the EPA IG in an email after Pruitt's resignation went public.
The EPA IG official responded, "How about we postpone the call until we know how we are going to proceed?"
"That sounds good," came the reply.
At the time, EPA said Pruitt's rent of the condo was fair market value. The agency released a memo and analysis showing that what the then-administrator paid in rent was in line with the neighborhood.
Pruitt has also contended on his 2017 financial disclosure report that he had never received a gift that year. OGE, however, declined to certify that report, saying the ethics agency was "unable to determine whether or not" Pruitt received a gift with his condo rent.
Pruitt's landlord at the condo was Vicki Hart. Her husband was lobbyist Steven Hart, who often had contact with EPA during Pruitt's time there, including joining a meeting with the then-administrator. He has disputed that he was lobbying the agency.
"This is not something that we can comment on," said EPA IG spokeswoman Tia Elbaum when asked several questions by E&E News for this story, including whether investigators did end up speaking with the appraiser and if the appraiser considered Pruitt's condo rental fair market value.
An OGE spokeswoman said the agency does not discuss specific individuals when contacted by E&E News for this story.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
'Expertise' for upcoming interviews
The records show there was more contact between OGE and EPA's internal watchdog in the months leading up to Pruitt's leaving the agency.
In April last year, an EPA IG official emailed the federal government's ethics office to "touch base" regarding an April 6 letter from David Apol, OGE's general counsel and then-acting director, to Kevin Minoli, then EPA's designated agency ethics official.
In that letter, Apol said he expected EPA to review ethics allegations against Pruitt, including those centered on the condo linked to a lobbyist. Minoli responded that he had referred his letter to the EPA IG.
The agency's watchdog office would also ask OGE for help as reviews into Pruitt's tenure began to pile up.
"Do you have some time tomorrow to speak with me about some of our ongoing investigations?" said an EPA IG official in an email last May.
"We may have a chance to conduct some interviews soon and I was hoping to utilize some of your expertise."
Apol also urged the inspector general's office in a letter dated June 15 last year to complete its report on allegations related to Pruitt "as soon as possible" so OGE could decide whether to begin corrective action against the then-EPA administrator.
Contact also continued after Pruitt's resignation.
Emails show a call was planned for the afternoon of July 18, nearly two weeks after Pruitt stepped down. The call was categorized as "Gift from Outside Sources, Misuse of Position, Prohibited Personnel Practices," according to OGE notes on the interaction.
Resignation ends investigation
The EPA watchdog and OGE decided not to follow through on the investigation. In a Sept. 10 letter to Emory Rounds, director of the ethics agency, then-EPA IG Arthur Elkins said the administrator's resignation had effectively ended the probe.
"As Mr. Pruitt's resignation precludes his being subject to any such potential administrative penalties with regard to these allegations, we understand that the OGE is no longer requesting that we review Mr. Pruitt's alleged actions for potential administrative violations of the Standards of Conduct," Elkins said.
"As such, the OIG does not intend to pursue the requests in your April 6 and June 15 letters to the extent that they would constitute administrative violations of the Standards of Conduct."
The EPA IG would disclose that decision publicly in its last semiannual report released at the end of last November, saying Pruitt resigned before he was interviewed by investigators and for that reason, the investigation was deemed "inconclusive." The watchdog office said in a subsequent letter to Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) that along with interviewing witnesses and reviewing records, it had consulted with OGE and the Justice Department on the case.
The EPA IG has already released stinging reports on Pruitt's tenure at EPA, including on his first-class travel and extensive security detail. Other reviews related to the former administrator are expected to be issued this year.
Elbaum with EPA IG estimated the watchdog office this summer will issue its report on EPA's record-keeping of emails and text messages. In addition, a review on "administratively determined" hires, which resulted in hefty pay raises for close Pruitt aides, is expected to be released by late summer.
Elbaum, however, cautioned that those release dates are only estimates.
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