What Scott Pruitt’s Troubles Tell Us About Corruption in Kalorama

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the situation at 2449 Tracy Place NW, where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump rent a mansion owned by Chilean mining billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, and Scott Pruitt’s sweetheart deal to rent a bedroom in a Washington DC condo owned by the wife of powerful lobbyist Steven Hart, chairman of Williams & Jensen, for fifty dollars a night. But that will not get us very far, and it’s best not to conflate the two cases.

To begin with, Jared and Ivanka are reportedly paying market rate for their place: $15,000 / month. While no one, to my knowledge, has seen records of those monthly payments in the form of cancelled checks or electronic transfer receipts, it seems pretty safe to assume that rent is actually being collected. Doesn’t it? The corporation that owns the property, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc., was formed by Luksic’s lawyers at Duane Morris LLP in Boston, and the deal was put together by one of the Washington DC’s “top-producing” real estate agents: Cynthia Howar, who is herself a member of the bar. The lawyers, one would like to think, took care of the details.

Not so in Scott Pruitt’s case. Despite the friendly terms, Pruitt fell behind on his rental payments, according to Politico, “forcing his lobbyist landlord to pester him for payment.” Pruitt’s landlord, Vicki Hart, did not have the appropriate business license to rent out a room in her Washington, DC condo, and now faces fines of up to $2000.

In Kalorama, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc. had obtained the business license for a one family rental from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in the District of Columbia by March of 2017. That license is good for two years, until February 28, 2019. Who can say where the first family tenants will be by then?

Of course, there is one important parallel to draw between the Pruitt case and the situation at Tracy Place. It doesn’t have to do with licenses or rental agreements or payments. It has to do with ethics — or an apparent lack of concern with ethics.

Scott Pruitt rushed an ethics review of his bedroom rental only after news stories about the deal started to appear. The review was botched, or its conclusions were forced; it’s unclear which. The EPA’s top ethics official now says he needs to revisit the matter, because he was not in full possession of the facts when he retroactively approved the arrangement. This only serves to highlight that the right time for Scott Pruitt to ask whether the rental was permissible or appropriate was before entering into it.

Much the same could be said of Jared and Ivanka’s rental of the Kalorama mansion: the lawyers may have left nothing undone, but there is still the question whether this rental agreement ought to have been struck in the first place, given the fact that the mansion’s owner — or the mining conglomerate his family controls — was suing the U.S. government over the renewal of mining leases.

Twin Metals Minnesota had already sued the United States government back in September of 2016 over lack of action on the Superior National Forest leases. When the Obama administration did act in December of 2016, denying renewal of the leases, and launching a study of a 20-year ban on sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters, it was clear Twin Metals would sue again.

This second suit was filed by Antofagasta’s subsidiaries, Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia Minerals, on February 21, 2017, just about a week before Tracy DC Real Estate obtained its license to rent the Kalorama mansion as a one family unit. A review of the rental agreement should obviously have been undertaken by the Office of the White House Counsel, with these and other facts in view, if only to preempt scandal-mongering and dispel any appearance of impropriety.

One of the earliest reports of the rental agreement in the Wall Street Journal quotes Rob Walker, a lawyer in private practice who specializes in election law and government ethics, to the effect that “there might not be an ethics problem” as long as the mansion is being rented at fair market value. Maybe not. But I’ve been unable to find any indication that a formal ethics review of the Kalorama rental agreement was ever requested or conducted.

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