WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency’s top ethics official said Wednesday that he lacked key facts when he concluded recently that Administrator Scott Pruitt’s rental lease with a lobbyist last year did not violate any federal gift rules.

Kevin Minoli, EPA’s designated agency ethics official and principal deputy general counsel, had written in a March 30 memo that Pruitt’s lease of a room in a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by health-care lobbyist Vicki Hart – for $50 a night, charged only when he stayed there – did not constitute a gift because that rate for 30 consecutive days would have equated to a monthly rent of $1,500. Minoli described that as “a reasonable market value.”

But in a new memo, which was obtained by the Campaign Legal Center and first reported by CNN, Minoli emphasized that he evaluated the terms of the lease only and not activities the document did not cover.

The updated assessment comes as members of President Trump’s inner circle have become increasingly critical of Pruitt of his handling of several different ethical misconduct allegations, according to a senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. Despite Pruitt’s denials, Trump’s top aides are convinced he played a key role in authorizing massive raises last month for two staffers that joined him at EPA from Oklahoma.

In an interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry on Wednesday, Pruitt implied he was not involved in the decisions on pay hikes for senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt and director of scheduling and advance Millan Hupp.

“I found out this yesterday, and I corrected the action, and we are in the process of finding out how it took place and correcting that going forward,” he told Henry, adding later, “I did not know that they got pay raises until yesterday.”


White House officials also are uneasy with the administrator’s recent publicity push with conservative media outlets, including his appearance on Fox News.

Pruitt and EPA officials were warned against his sitting down with Fox and other outlets. The same message was later relayed by Chief of Staff John Kelly in a phone call, with Kelly expressing dissatisfaction with Pruitt’s previous interviews, according to a senior White House official. But the administrator continued his media tour.

Questions surrounding Pruitt’s public account of his management decisions have been sharpened by recent revelations about his unusual rental arrangement last year.

The lease, for example, provided for the use of a single room. “All other space is controlled by the landlord,” it stated. But several EPA officials have confirmed that Pruitt’s adult daughter stayed in the condo apartment’s second bedroom for a period when she was working at the White House last year.

“Some have raised questions whether the actual use of the space was consistent with the terms of the lease,” Minoli wrote. “Evaluating those questions would have required factual information that was not before us and the Review does not address those questions.”

He also clarified that he did not examine whether Pruitt’s arrangement violated the impartiality rule, which would have prohibited the administrator from having any dealings with other employees at Vicki Hart’s lobbying firm.


The arrangement has come under intense scrutiny because Hart’s husband, Steven Hart, is chairman of the firm Williams & Jensen, which lobbies on energy issues along with other matters. He told The Post last week that he “had no lobbying contact with EPA in 2017 or 2018” and referred to Pruitt as a “casual friend” with whom he has had little contact. In recent interviews, however, Pruitt has described Hart as someone he has known for years.

A copy of the lease, attached to Minoli’s most recent memo, showed that Steven Hart’s name had been scribbled out and his wife’s name handwritten in. According to a senior administration official, Vicki Hart herself made the change.

While Pruitt’s ability to roll back federal regulations has stood him in good stead with the White House, the deluge of news about his financial dealings is now complicating that work. A presidential event scheduled for Friday to showcase a change in national air-quality standards has been canceled, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the agency’s planning process.

As President Donald Trump boarded Air Force One for a trip to West Virginia on Thursday, he was asked by reporters if he still had confidence in Pruitt. “I do,” he said.

On the plane, White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley was asked how long Pruitt might remain in office.

“You can’t speak to several months or several weeks. If the president has confidence in somebody, they stay,” Gidley told reporters. He declined to answer what specific activities the White House is reviewing but said the president “demands the highest ethical standards.”


At least three congressional Republicans have joined Democrats in calling on Pruitt to resign. The latest is New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who according to news reports called for Pruitt’s ouster during a town hall meeting on Thursday.

Still, other Republicans have continued to stand by the embattled EPA administrator. Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas both publicly backed Pruitt on Thursday, two days after longtime Pruitt supporter Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., also came to his defense.

In media interviews this week, Pruitt repeatedly defended himself and highlighted the fact that agency ethics officials approved his Capitol Hill rental.

He told the Washington Examiner that Steven Hart was a fellow Oklahoman who has no clients with business at the EPA. “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,” Pruitt said.

And he told the Washington Times: “Career ethics officials at the EPA . . . have reviewed the lease and have determined there are no ethical concerns, that it’s market value. I was living out of a suitcase, and I literally had access to one room in a unit where common area access by others occurred all the time. In fact, I could pull up comps. The ethics people actually did this.”

Later, during his interview with Fox News, he was asked: “Didn’t President Trump say he was going to drain the swamp? Is draining the swamp renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?”


“I don’t even think that that’s even remotely fair to ask that question,” Pruitt replied.

The administrator went on to reiterate that EPA ethics officials had approved the lease in recent days and again insisted that he had paid a market rate. “There were comps done by ethics officials here,” Pruitt said, suggesting that on Craigslist it is possible to find similar rentals in the same neighborhood for less than $1,000.

In an email Wednesday night, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said that Minoli’s most recent memo “reassures 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.”

“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 patently false,” Bowman added.

Despite Pruitt’s insistence that EPA career officials approved his 2017 living arrangement, which went from late February to early August, agency ethics officials weren’t aware of it until news reports late last week.

Political aides then scrambled, contacting the ethics lawyers and pushing them to make a hasty ruling despite not knowing some details of the arrangement, according to people familiar with the agency’s response who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.


These individuals said that both Minoli and Justina Fugh, the EPA’s senior counsel for ethics and an agency veteran, signed off on the arrangement before news reports surfaced about Pruitt’s daughter also being in the apartment for a time. Vicki Hart said in a statement last week that she was not aware of the young woman’s presence there and that Pruitt would owe her additional rent if the reports were true.

In his latest memo, Minoli explains that he found seven private bedroom rentals available for $55 or less nightly within a six-block radius of where Pruitt stayed. But he noted that the average cost of rental apartments on Capitol Hill is $2,361 and that the eight one-bedroom rentals available within three blocks of Hart’s condo rented for an average of $2,173 per month, according to Zillow.

Ultimately, Minoli again concluded, given the availability of several private rooms in the area available for similar rents, the price paid was “a reasonable market value of the use authorized by the terms of the lease.”

The sharp focus on Pruitt’s housing arrangement, as well as criticism of his first-class travel and of huge raises that two top aides recently received, has roiled his inner circle.

Samantha Dravis, a longtime adviser who serves as senior counsel and associate administrator in EPA’s Office of Policy, submitted her resignation last week to work in the private sector. Her decision to le ave is unrelated to Pruitt’s recent ethics woes, according to several agency officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter. But it comes at a time when he is relying on an increasingly narrow set of advisers to navigate decision-making.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.