Scott Pruitt is crooked. This is inarguable, or at least it would be if so many people weren’t professionally or ideologically obligated to argue the point. The facts are damning: In addition to his scandals involving the spending of public funds on his lavish jetsetting and excessive security requirements, and his pay raises for aides loyal to him and his sidelining of officials who questioned his spending, the most clearcut evidence of Pruitt’s corruption is his stay in a condo co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist.
Pruitt paid a below-market rate for his room in the condo (and his daughter had use of a separate room), which was also a frequent site of fundraisers for Republican politicians. The name of the energy lobbyist, J. Steven Hart, was printed on the lease agreement for some reason, despite the fact that his wife (healthcare industry lobbyist Vicki Hart) “owns” it officially (his first name was crossed out and Vicki’s handwritten in its place). Mr. Hart, of course, represented multiple clients with business before the EPA while Pruitt rented the room, and one of Hart’s firm’s clients got EPA approval for a pipeline project, too.
In a normal corruption scandal, that would be the “quo.”
But this is not quite a normal corruption scandal. Not just because it is happening in the context of a presidential administration that does not even pretend to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of self-dealing, and not just because opportunistic conservatives are willing to overlook nearly any malfeasance as long as their foot soldiers enact as much of their plutocratic agenda as possible before being thrown out of office, but because honest observers agree that the quid pro quo is sort of irrelevant, except as something an Inspector General or other ethics watchdog would seize on to justify an ousting. As Ryan Cooper writes, Pruitt is so inherently corrupt that he doesn’t need bribing: “He would have eagerly done the bidding of any energy lobbyist no matter how much money they were giving him.”
Because Pruitt and the Harts had already been friends, well before he came to Washington to run Donald Trump’s EPA, all parties involved seemingly thought of the condo arrangement as something done for a friend.
Here’s how Pruitt himself put it in a friendly interview with the Washington Examiner:
“When you think of the townhouse, the rent last year. The owner of that is an Oklahoman. I’ve known him for years. He’s the outside counsel for the National Rifle Association, has no clients that are before this agency, nor does his wife have any clients that have appeared before this agency. 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,” said Pruitt, formerly Oklahoma attorney general.”
Leaving aside apparent falsehoods about whether or not Hart had clients appearing before the EPA, the main point—he let me stay at his condo because he’s a longtime friend—seems more or less accurate. Indeed, the news that Pruitt was lousy at paying his rent and eventually had to be thrown out of the room almost shows how it wasn’t a pure bribe in exchange for favorable treatment—that’s how you handle a friend, or former friend, who’s overstayed his welcome, not someone you’re actively trying to buy off.
Of course, his friendship with the lobbyist seeking deregulation is, itself, proof that Pruitt is corrupt to his core. He has been cultivated by people like Hart, and considers himself their friend and ally. His entire mission in government, basically, is being an agent of polluting industries. While they’re not handing him stacks of cash, they are funding his career and, presumably, keeping some corporate board seats open for him whenever he’s done in government, or in between stints in government.
So the problem is, the only difference between Pruitt’s corruption and the widespread corruption of nearly everyone else in Washington, in both parties, is the degree to which he is captured, not the form his corruption takes. Because being socially close to people representing industries seeking to influence the government, and then acting in ways that benefit those industries, and then receiving some sort of renumeration—a job or consulting gig or massively overinflated speaking fees or even just rides on a nice yacht—is basically How Things Work, and whenever you call it “corruption,” a lot of people very heatedly claim to be able to separate their personal or social lives from their political principles and professional obligations.
You see it clearly in the legal profession, as when ex-Attorney General Eric Holder returned to his massive corporate law firm, which kept his office empty for him during his stint in the Justice Department, to resume making millions of dollars working at a firm specializing in white collar defense for banks. There is Jesse Eisinger’s “Chickenshit Club,” which details how careerism in attorneys and—equally important—social pressures caused the Department of Justice to largely abandon the practice of holding corporate executives responsible for white collar crime.
This is also more or less what the Clintons have been doing, nonstop, since Bill left office. And when asked about their proximity to rich people, their acceptance of money and gifts from rich people, and their business dealings with rich people, they give answers that sound not dissimilar to Scott Pruitt explaining away a below-market rental by saying it was just a favor from a friend. It’s hard to see how Pruitt’s condo was more self-evidently corrupting than Cory Booker’s massive stake in Waywire, the vague “video startup” that existed mainly to give Jeff Zucker’s son a hobby and Booker and his friends a little spending money.
If we believe, in the case of Scott Pruitt, that social ties to corporate interests are corrupting, and friendly favors from those friends are corrupting, and that the individual receiving those favors is ethically compromised even if he believes believes himself to be acting purely based on his own principles, then we should probably also believe those things in the cases of everyone else.