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White House Comments on Pruitt Luxury Spending Cowardly

Kurt Bardella/NBC News

A government bureaucrat commits fraud against the federal government and the American taxpayers by billing them tens of thousands of dollars for lavish trips, luxury rooms at hotels and even travel costs for his wife. He is subsequently hauled in front of Congress and made to account for his activities. No, I’m not talking about embattled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt — I’m referring to disgraced former General Services Administration (GSA) executive Jeffrey Neely.

In the spring of 2012, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform launched a congressional investigation examining the GSA’s culture of wasteful spending that culminated with a number of resignations. As a senior advisor to the committee and its chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) at the time, I remember how eagerly Republicans on the panel worked to expose what Rep. Jason Chaffetz described as “government at its worst.” Chaffetz's comments were echoed by colleagues like Reps. Trey Gowdy (the current chairman of the committee) and Jim Jordan (founder of the House Freedom Caucus).

When Neely declined to answer questions at the oversight hearing and exercised his Fifth Amendment rights, Gowdy declared: “I want indictments.” Ultimately, Gowdy got his wish. Neely was eventually sentenced to three months in prison.

Which brings us to the growing list of flagrant abuses and unethical behavior perpetrated by the EPA's Pruitt.

In February, details about Pruitt’s use of private jets and first-class travel were reported by the Washington Post. Soon more details began to emerge, and with them a broader picture of the spending habits of the EPA and Pruitt. At the beginning of April, it was revealed that Pruitt was renting a condominium at a seemingly deeply discounted rate from the wife of the head of a lobbying firm that represents a number of energy companies.

Now, new details from a senior EPA whistleblower shed further light on the culture of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement that Pruitt has presided over during his relatively short tenure.

Kevin Chmielewski, the former deputy chief of staff for operations at the EPA, met with the congressional staffers, including Oversight Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and revealed troubling, firsthand accounts of Pruitt’s wasteful and potentially illegal spending of taxpayer dollars. It’s worth noting that Chmielewski is a long-time supporter and campaign aide of President Donald Trump.

New details from a senior EPA whistleblower shed further light on the culture of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement that Pruitt has presided over during his relatively short tenure.

Chmielewski detailed how Pruitt and his team used the guise of security concerns to justify absurd spending on first class travel, bulletproof vests and weapons, upgrades to an SUV and a $30,000 contract with a private Italian security outfit. The EPA even paid to have bullet-resistant seat covers installed in Pruitt's vehicle. Remember this is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency we’re talking about. In what the Government Accountability Office alleges is a violation of at least two laws, Pruitt built a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office without first notifying Congress.

Pruitt’s abuses weren’t limited to just taxpayer waste, however.

Chmielewski told congressional investigators that the EPA’s Director of Scheduling and Advance Millan Hupp acted as Pruitt’s personal real estate representative, spending weeks improperly using government resources and time to contact rental and seller’s agents, and touring numerous properties. A new inspector general report released this week revealed that Hupp, who was hired last March with a $66,500 salary, was promoted and received two substantial raises, including one on April 1, 2018 that increased her compensation to $114,600 — a 72.3 percent increase over 13 months. While Pruitt denied any knowledge about the unusual raises, Chmielewski told congressional investigators that salary raises given to favored aides were “100% Pruitt himself.”

Pruitt and his team used the guise of security to justify absurd spending on first class travel and upgrades to an SUV. Remember this is the administrator of the EPA we’re talking about.

So how have congressional Republicans responded to such flagrant examples of abuse? They’ve sent a letter to the EPA requesting more information. I spent more than four years working at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and I can tell you this response is the absolute bare minimum. This is a committee that has the unique ability to issue subpoenas and conduct depositions. The chairman of the committee has the authority to convene congressional hearings and compel witnesses to appear to answer questions.

When abuse and mismanagement was exposed during President Barack Obama’s administration, Trey Gowdy wanted “indictments.” Now that he is a chairman of the Oversight Committee, Gowdy and his fellow committee Republicans aren’t issuing subpoenas or holding hearings, let alone pushing for indictments. No, they are sending strongly worded letters.

The overall silence of Republicans in Congress is empowering the worst impulses of the Trump cabinet. And the hypocrisy is impossible to ignore.

Whether motivated by a misguided effort to protect the Trump administration or simple partisan loyalty, Gowdy and his colleagues are enabling the Pruitt’s of Washington to do the exact opposite of what Trump vowed during his campaign. This is not a draining of the swamp, this is a cultivation of it. At the same time, the overall silence of Republicans in Congress is empowering the worst impulses of the Trump cabinet. And the hypocrisy is impossible to ignore.

It begs the question, if Scott Pruitt’s conduct doesn’t cross any ethical or legal lines for congressional Republicans, what does?

Kurt Bardella is an NBC News THINK contributor. He is a former spokesperson and Senior Advisor for the Chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella.

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