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EPA's Scott Pruitt is gone, but the Trump adminstration’s culture of corruption remains

  • Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt defied virtually every ethics rule or longstanding norm that regulates the conduct of government officials.
  • The most recent disclosures involved potential illegalities: using one’s office for financial enrichment, retaliating against whistleblowers and doctoring federal records.
  • While Scott Pruitt may go down in history as one of the most corrupt cabinet members, the ultimate blame lies with a president who disregards ethics laws and well-established norms every day.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt.

For the past year, the survival instincts of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have been a constant source of amazement in Washington. Despite an almost daily series of disclosures, Pruitt managed to hold onto his job and even seemed to gain more trust from Donald Trump.

Indeed, just three weeks ago, Pruitt confidently tweeted a photo of himself sitting behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office.

For those of us who followed the daily revelations of Pruitt’s improprieties, there was always a mix of outrage and black humor.

After all, who has the gall to send his staff to find hand lotion from a Ritz-Carlton hotel or a used mattress from the Trump Hotel? Who is brazen enough to request sports tickets from people whose businesses are regulated by the EPA? Who is paranoid enough to demand first-class airline travel and a soundproof booth in his office? And who openly flouts federal ethics rules by seeking a sweetheart apartment deal and potential jobs for his wife?

And those of who have served in previous administrations watched with shock at how Pruitt defied virtually every ethics rule or longstanding norm that regulates the conduct of government officials. Indeed, two of Pruitt’s cabinet colleagues – Tom Price and David Shulkin – were pushed out of their jobs for far less egregious misconduct.

When it was reported earlier this week that Pruitt had reached a “tipping point,” it appeared to be just another false alarm. Yet, this time, something felt different.

"While Scott Pruitt may go down in history as one of the most corrupt cabinet members, the ultimate blame lies with a president who disregards ethics laws and well-established norms every day. "

No longer were the allegations about wasteful spending or poor judgment. The most recent disclosures involved potential illegalities: using one’s office for financial enrichment, retaliating against whistleblowers and doctoring federal records to hide meeting participants.

What was notable about the new allegations is that they weren’t coming from “deep state” civil servants. They were coming from his top political appointees, including his current chief of staff and his former deputy chief of staff. And these allegations were being examined by one of the few bipartisan investigations in Congress.

No one truly knows how many investigations were being conducted of Pruitt’s misconduct. CNN guessed 14, while Bloomberg put the number at 16. It really makes no difference. Any political appointee, much less a member of the cabinet, who had acted with such disregard of the law would have been long gone under any other president.

Pruitt’s resignation is a victory for accountability, dogged reporters, whistleblowers, the vigorous use of the Freedom of Information Act by outside groups and the rule of law. However, even with Pruitt’s departure, the underlying cause of this scandal hasn’t disappeared.

While Scott Pruitt may go down in history as one of the most corrupt cabinet members, the ultimate blame lies with a president who disregards ethics laws and well-established norms every day. A president who refuses to disclose his tax returns, profits from a hotel blocks away from the White House, and has blurred the line between official and political activities, just to name a few examples.

This isn't just about Pruitt; it's about a culture where flouting the rules is accepted and even encouraged. And as long as the occupant of the Oval Office remains the same, we shouldn’t be surprised if the ethics scandals continue with a new set of players.

Commentary by Chris Lu, who served in the Obama Administration as White House Cabinet Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Labor. He is now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisLu44 .

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