EPA chief Scott Pruitt pulls out of GOP event appearance that could have violated law

Key Points
  • EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pulled out of an Oklahoma Republican Party fundraising event.
  • Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse asked the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to investigate whether his planned appearance violated the Hatch Act.
  • Pruitt said his decision to withdraw was due to problematic language in the event invitation that raised legal concerns.
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks during the 2017 CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference in Houston, Texas, on Thursday, March 9, 2017.
F. Carter Smith | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt will not attend an Oklahoma Republican Party fundraising event over concerns the appearance would run afoul of a federal law.

Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, had been slated to keynote the annual Oklahoma Republican Party Gala. The organizers billed the appearance as "a once in a lifetime event" to hear from the current EPA chief.

On Tuesday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said the language in the invitation amounted to "a brand of political promotion prohibited by the Hatch Act." On Tuesday, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel calling for the office to investigate whether Pruitt had violated the law.

The Hatch Act prohibits executive branch employees from leveraging their authority or influence to affect elections, including by allowing their "official title to be used in connection with fundraising activities."

OKGOP Gala event invitation

Pruitt told Fox News Radio the EPA's ethics office had approved his participation at the event. He said the agency decided he should pull out after the event organizers released an invitation that contained problematic language, which played up his federal role.

"What happened was the folks that invited me sent out an invitation, post that approval, that didn't comply with federal law and federal ethics law, so we're not going to be able to attend because of the invitation," Pruitt explained.

The Oklahoma Republican Party did not immediately return a request for comment.

On Thursday, Whitehouse indicated he would not drop his calls for an investigation.

"This is the least he can do. But the Office of Special Counsel still must do a thorough investigation to determine whether Administrator Pruitt ran afoul of the Hatch Act," he said in a statement.

Pruitt has become one of the most closely watched and highly divisive bureaucrats appointed by President Donald Trump.

EPA head Pruitt: What comes next is a much more 'humble view'

Conservatives and the energy industry typically praise him for reining in what they see as President Barack Obama's regulatory overreach and for aiming to give states greater oversight of mining and drilling. Democrats and environmentalists have harshly criticized Pruitt for his public comments downplaying the impacts of climate change and for his close relationship with fossil-fuel companies.

Last month, the Sierra Club filed a complaint with the EPA's inspector general, calling for an investigation into Pruitt's claim on CNBC that carbon dioxide is not a "primary contributor" to global warming. That statement contradicts the EPA's own findings.