The trouble with ethics
Rather than getting his own place in D.C., EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for six months in 2017 lived in a prime real estate condo belonging to the wife of a top environmental and energy lobbyist, J. Steven Hart.
And yes, Hart lobbies for firms that have business and are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Hart's wife, health care lobbyist Vicki Hart, told reporters that Pruitt paid $50 a night for one bedroom — on nights when he stayed there. But Hart said she was unaware that Pruitt's adult daughter also lived at the condo in the second bedroom during a Washington internship.
"The rental agreement was with Scott Pruitt," Vicki Hart told ABC News. "If other people were using the bedroom or the living quarters, I was never told, and I never gave him permission to do that."
Bloomberg News reviewed EPA's copies of canceled checks that Pruitt paid to Hart. Bloomberg reported the checks showed varying amounts paid on sporadic dates.
In all, Pruitt paid $6,100 over six months — to stay in a condo in a prime location less than a block from the U.S. Capitol complex. Other nearby apartments have rented for as much as $5,000 a month.
At $50 a night, $250 a week, $1,000 a month — Pruitt had a sweetheart deal cheaper than a Motel 6 room in Chattanooga.
But EPA says, no, it's not a "gift," as outraged Democrats and other observers have charged.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox released a statement from EPA Senior Counsel for Ethics Justina Fugh on Friday, saying she did not "conclude that this is a prohibited gift at all. It was a routine business transaction and permissible even if from a personal friend," according to ABC News, which broke the story.
That's not necessarily the take of other ethics watchdogs. Bryson Morgan, who has served as Investigative Counsel at the U.S. House of Representatives Office of Congressional Ethics, told ABC the arrangement raises red flags.
"I think it certainly creates a perception problem, especially if Mr. Hart was seeking to influence the agency," Morgan said.
Hart is the chairman of lobbying firm Williams and Jensen that lobbies on EPA policies like the Clean Air Act, according to Williams and Jensen's website.
This is the same Scott Pruitt who cordoned off an entire floor of the EPA office building for his personal use, installed a whole separate security system to get into his private domain, staffed the building with a private army of at least 30 to escort people in an out of his office, and fitted the office with his own special cone of silence. He also spent up to $14,000 on a single domestic flight back to Oklahoma. He's had a taxpayer-funded $120,000 vacation in Italy and an as-yet-untotaled December business trip to Morocco, where EPA says liquid natural gas exports were a topic of discussion. By the way, the only active Liquid Natural Gas export plant in the United States in December was one owned by Cheniere Energy Inc. ABC reports that Cheniere Energy Inc. last year reported paying Hart's firm $80,000.
No gifts, no swamp, no collusion.
Follow the Russian breadcrumbs
A top Trump campaign official, Rick Gates, who has agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert S. Mueller in his Russia/Trump probe, had repeated communications during the last weeks of the 2016 presidential race with a business associate tied to Russian intelligence, according to a court sentencing document filed last week in Gates' case.
Gates had frequent phone calls in September and October 2016 with "a former Russian Intelligence Officer with the G.R.U.," the Russian military intelligence agency. The document also says the person, identified only as "Person A," had active links to Russian spy services at the time.
The New York Times has reported that "Person A" is believed to be Konstantin V. Kilimnik, who for years was Paul Manafort's right-hand man in Ukraine. Manafort served as Trump's campaign chairman until August 2016, when he resigned amid the growing controversy about his work in Ukraine.
The breadcrumbs are turning up everywhere.
Election meddling — American style
The reality is that America has never been short on election meddling.
It's just usually done by our own politicians — not Russian ones.
Take, for instance, gerrymandering districts. We'll see what an impact that has in May when Pennsylvania's mid-term primaries show us how elections turn out when Republican gerrymandering is gone and the districts are drawn fairly by the courts.
Another example is the Trump administration's plan to make people disappear from the 2018 Census count.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced last week (he must have taken No-Doz,) that this year's census will ask the citizenship status of every person in the country.
Returning that census question to the survey now, when the immigration debate is at fever pitch and immigrants live in constant fear of being deported, raises a danger that respondents will not trust the government's assurances of confidentiality and will simply decide not to participate.
If that happens, it will affect more than just the accuracy of our population count. Census counts determine where federal money goes and how political power is divided among states. The counts influence how political districts are drawn, even when they are drawn fairly.
Politically, the Trump administration's new census question has the distinct possibility of rigging the count against Democrats. Again.
A little meddling here, a little there.