Tag Archives: Scott Pruitt

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.

Will Pruitt Retreat From the Yellow Dog Plains?

It’s no coincidence that the Marquette County Road Commission announced that it would renew the battle for County Road 595 just as the U.S. Senate geared up to confirm Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA.

CR 595 seemed like a lost cause after Judge Robert Holmes Bell denied a motion to alter or amend his dismissal of MCRC v. EPA back in December. (I wrote about that motion here). But if the election of Trump and his nomination of Pruitt can change the outlook for big mining projects like the Pebble Mine in Alaska, it can certainly help the MCRC build a haul road for Lundin Mining through the Yellow Dog wilderness.

A federal mediator is now scheduled to hear from both sides on March 9th. The appeal will go forward in the event the parties cannot agree.

The Pacific Legal Foundation — which now represents the MCRC — is clearly well equipped to appeal Bell’s decision. The libertarian-leaning PLF are even more likely than their Clark Hill predecessors to grandstand about federal overreach and economic self-determination. As I’ve tried to suggest in other posts (e.g., here or here), that’s cynical posturing: in this case a victory for the Road Commission will amount to ceding economic development authority to a Canadian mining company and its local proxies.

But libertarian huffing and puffing will not be what makes the Pacific Legal Foundation especially formidable. The PLF argued, and won, the Hawkes decision — which, as I explained in previous post, allowed the plaintiffs to challenge a ruling that wetlands on their property were subject to the Clean Water Act — and they regard Judge Bell’s rejection of the Hawkes decision in the CR 595 case as “a legally reversible error.” Indeed, the PLF are already advertising the Marquette County Road Commission’s case on their blog as “Hawkes Come to Michigan.”

And after today’s confirmation of Pruitt, the PLF will likely have have a much less formidable opponent in the EPA. The decision to go forward with this appeal clearly took that into account. Hawkes may not need to come to Michigan at all. Pruitt might just order the EPA to retreat.

Update, 24 August 2017: New briefs recently filed with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals show the Road Commission asking to present oral arguments in this case.

The case turns on three points: whether EPA objections constitute “final agency action” and are therefore subject to judicial review (a claim I explored here); failing that first condition, judicial review might be warranted under Leedom v. Kyne (which provides an exception to the final agency action rule when an agency’s conduct is “a readily-observable usurpation of power,” but the court has already ruled that the Leedom exception does not apply in this case); failing on those scores, the Road Commission wants to invoke a “futility exception” in order to bring the case under judicial review: the Army Corps of Engineers, they say, had already decided against County Road 595, and there was no point in returning to the permit process. But as the EPA notes in its 8 August response, this is speculative on the part of the Road Commission.

The larger issue here — which helps put the MCRC case in context — is that this ongoing litigation concerns a provision of the Clean Water Act, Section 404, which covers permits issued to discharge dredged or fill materials into the waters of the United States. Since stepping into his role at EPA, Scott Pruitt has been leading the charge to rescind the Obama-era definition those waters, revert to an earlier (pre-2015) definition, and make enforcement of the Clean Water Act more favorable to industries like mining.  If MCRC v. EPA continues to make its way through the courts, the case could easily become caught up in the toxic politics of Pruitt’s tenure at EPA.

Update, 17 October 2017: Oral argument is now scheduled for Tuesday, 5 December, before a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 15 October Detroit News op-ed, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Mark Miller argues EPA should “immediately” retreat, to deliver on Trump’s campaign promises and “send a signal to the EPA bureaucrats.” It would appear that the Marquette County Road Commission is being enlisted in what a recent episode of Frontline calls the “War on the EPA” and the larger political project to dismantle the administrative state.