Under fire for ethics scandals, EPA chief Pruitt resigns




 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who pleased President Donald Trump by rolling back environmental regulations but came under heavy fire in a series of ethics controversies, has resigned, Trump said on Thursday.

Pruitt was under scrutiny for months over first-class travel at taxpayer expense, security spending, connections with lobbyists and industry groups, accusations of using his office for favors, a $43,000 soundproof phone booth for his office and his rental of a high-end condo from an energy lobbyist's wife.

Numerous Democratic lawmakers and even some fellow Republicans had called for his resignation.

Trump announced on Twitter that he had accepted Pruitt's resignation as EPA administrator, adding that EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler will become the regulatory agency's acting chief on Monday.

"Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this," Trump wrote.Some of the ethics accusations involved jobs for Pruitt's wife. Emails obtained by the Sierra Club environmental group showed Pruitt had an aide contact the chief executive of a fast-food chain about his wife becoming a franchise owner. The Washington Post reported Pruitt had aides try to get her a job at the Republican Attorneys General Association with a salary topping $200,000 per year.

"The unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us," Pruitt said in his resignation letter.

Democrats and environmental advocacy groups cheered the departure of Pruitt, a close ally of the fossil fuel industry.

"Scott Pruitt's reign of venality is finally over. He made swamp creatures blush with his shameless excesses. All tolerated because Trump liked his zealotry. Shame," Democratic U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly said.

The Environmental Working Group called Pruitt "unquestionably the worst head of the agency in its 48-year history."

Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, from Pruitt's home state of Oklahoma, praised Pruitt's efforts to cut red tape for industry.

"Scott Pruitt did great work to reduce the regulatory burdens facing our nation while leading the Environmental Protection Agency," Inhofe said in a statement.

During congressional testimony in April, Pruitt was unapologetic for the controversies, often blaming his staff for any agency missteps. Lawmakers posed tough questions on a range of issues also including raises for top aides and reports of retaliation against EPA whistleblowers. Democrats accused him of endless misconduct.

Pruitt was known for questioning the human role in global climate change. As Oklahoma's former attorney general, he waged a legal fight against the environmental rules implemented by the agency he eventually would head.

SLASHING REGULATIONS

From a policy perspective, Pruitt was one of Trump's most effective Cabinet members. Trump has praised Pruitt for slashing regulations on the energy and manufacturing industries, including his move to repeal Democratic former President Barack Obama's signature program to cut carbon emissions from power plants, known as the Clean Power Plan.

Pruitt also was instrumental last year in lobbying Trump to withdraw the United States from the global 2015 Paris climate accord to combat global warming.

Trump's inner circle this year became frustrated by the torrent of news reports about Pruitt's controversies.

Pruitt also rankled some Republican lawmakers, including in Midwest corn states, because of his efforts to overhaul a U.S. policy requiring biofuels like corn-based ethanol in gasoline. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, for example, called Pruitt "about as swampy as you can get."

The EPA's inspector general was investigating Pruitt's frequent use of first-class flights, which the agency has said were needed for his safety after threats from the public. The EPA also confirmed that Pruitt's security detail joined him on first-class flights, contributing to the high costs of his travel.

Travel records showed the U.S. government spent $17,000 in taxpayer money on a December trip to Morocco to promote U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas, which is not part of the EPA's jurisdiction. The Washington Post reported that a longtime Pruitt friend and lobbyist helped arrange the trip and later registered as a foreign agent representing Morocco.

Pruitt said his $50-per-night condo lease from an energy lobbyist's wife received ethics approval from the agency, though the EPA's inspector general's office said its review was based on incomplete information.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded the EPA violated two laws by installing the $43,000 phone booth for his office without telling lawmakers first. Pruitt said his staff never told him the cost.

(Reporting by Eric Walsh, Eric Beech and Makini Brice; Editing by Will Dunham)

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