Trump’s environment chief faces intensifying scrutiny

US Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is under fire for renting a lobbyist's Capitol Hill apartment at below-market rates, the latest ethical dispute to tarnish a member of President Donald Trump's cabinet

Washington (AFP) – Donald Trump’s environment chief came under mounting criticism Tuesday, including from within his own Republican Party, over renting a lobbyist’s apartment and other damaging revelations, but he appeared to have the president’s backing.

Amid speculation that Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, could be the latest of Trump’s cabinet members to get the axe, congressional Democrats were urging an investigation into his activities.

They include his renting Capitol Hill accommodations from the wife of an energy lobbyist last year at the below-market rate of $50 per day, reportedly bypassing the White House to raise wages for two aides, and using taxpayer funds for first-class travel.

The stream of allegations prompted one moderate House Republican to demand Pruitt’s ouster.

“@EPAScottPruitt’s corruption scandals are an embarrassment to the Administration, and his conduct is grossly disrespectful to American taxpayers,” congressman Carlos Curbelo tweeted Tuesday.

“It’s time for him to resign or for @Potus (Trump) to dismiss him.”

No stranger to controversy, Pruitt is a climate change skeptic who honed his views as attorney general of Oklahoma and has since sought to limit the influence of scientists in EPA policymaking.

Just this week he rolled back Obama-era pollution and fuel efficiency standards for cars. 

Trump, who shares Pruitt’s pro-energy agenda, has given him a vote of confidence.

The president called him late Monday, urging him to “keep your head up, keep fighting,” and that “we have your back,” according to US media reports.

Asked Tuesday about his EPA head, Trump was cryptic, saying “I hope he’s going to be great.”

The EPA said in a statement it reviewed the accommodations agreement and it was above board, but Democrats have seized on the rental as yet another sign of high-level impropriety.

House Democrats Ted Lieu and Don Beyer wrote the EPA’s inspector general demanding a probe of Pruitt’s rental of the flat last year, when he paid just $50 day, and only on the days he stayed in the property, which was partly owned by Vicki Hart, the wife of energy lobbyist Steven Hart.

“This is far below market value and, as such, would constitute an impermissible gift under federal regulations,” the lawmakers wrote.

Pruitt has already faced a public backlash for taking dozens of first-class flights and for his agency paying $43,000 to install a sound-proof communication booth in his office.

Trump has already sacked two cabinet members over ethics lapses: Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin, who was ousted last week, and Health and Human Services chief Tom Price.

Firing Pruitt could trigger another testy confirmation battle when the US Senate is already lining up nomination hearings for Trump’s latest picks for secretary of state, the CIA and Veterans Affairs.