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Guest Column: Would this behavior be allowed at a local level?

We need good policy and honest leadership at the top to keep the entire country moving forward in a healthy direction. Both are in critical shortage in the Trump administration, which may be more dysfunctional than the scandal-ridden Harding presidency nearly a century ago. There are people who gain from this swampy state of affairs — bigly — and it’s not the American public.

Scott Pruitt, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, is one of the most ethically challenged cabinet heads in Washington. He has been under repeated fire for a string of scandals that began festering soon after he arrived in Washington.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

To begin the oozefest, Pruitt lied to Congress during his confirmation hearings. When asked if he had used a private email account for official business as Oklahoma’s attorney general, he said no. A month later, journalists uncovered that he had, in fact, used his private email to develop talking points with fossil fuel companies that were in opposition to environmental regulations. He had also communicated with his staff and lobbyists via private email.

Like Tom Price, former secretary of Health and Human Services who resigned last fall, Scott Pruitt has drawn criticism for his air travel expenses. He amassed over $100,000 in bills on first class air travel (plus an additional $58,000 on charter flights and a military jet) rather than booking agency-recommended coach seats. The justification is that Pruitt was facing security threats (i.e. rudeness from other passengers), which even Republican lawmakers have criticized.

These “security threats” are also why Pruitt’s security detail cost over $800,000 in his first few months on the job, nearly double what each of his two immediate predecessors spent over a comparable period of their tenures. Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island has asked the EPA inspector general to investigate documented allegations that Pruitt’s security team accompanied his family on private trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl on the taxpayer dime.

Pruitt also dumped a total of $43,000 into installing a soundproof phone booth in his office. In addition, he spent $3,000 to have his office swept for bugs (the eavesdropping kind) and $6,000 to install biometric locks on his office door.

Why all the security and secrecy? Democratic government is based on transparency, not murkiness. Pruitt doesn’t work in covert operations. His spending seems questionable, if not outright paranoid, since his department is simultaneously facing steep funding cuts.

Pruitt has demonstrated further ethical slickness in personnel and housing. He used a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to substantially raise the salaries of two of his staffers after the White House initially denied the request. He used the same provision to tap a former lobbyist for the chemical industry to be deputy head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, a post which typically goes to a career civil servant or a political appointee. This allowed the lobbyist to get around Trump’s ethics pledge which specifically prohibits officials from working on the same issues they have lobbied on in the past two years.

One assistant who received the big raise also helped Pruitt search for housing as part of her duties, including contacting real estate agents and viewing potential properties, which is misuse of government funds for personal use.

Pruitt has been hurting consumers and air-breathers from a policy standpoint as well. His recent rollback of targets for vehicle efficiency standards will increase air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. It also discourages innovation that reduces our dependence on foreign oil and makes the U.S. competitive in the growing high-efficiency vehicle market.

It’s Pruitt’s miasmatic actions on the renewable fuel standard that may hurt us in Freeborn County most directly because our county produces biofuels and the crops that go into making them. Pruitt exempted one of the U.S.’s largest oil refiners, Andeavor, from complying with biofuel blending requirements, a relief that is traditionally reserved for smaller refineries that may be financially endangered by the standards. Andeavor posted profits of $1.5 billion last year, and the exemption it received, granted in secret last month, could save it more than $50 million this year.

Would we allow this kind of vaporous behavior from our local government officials if we were aware of it? We live in a state known for clean government — it could be more open still — and I don’t think voters would tolerate an official who operated in blatant disregard for ethics and the public good.

Pruitt is costing taxpayers money, for his personal benefit and the benefit of those he is supposed to be regulating. If Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” were actually an operating philosophy rather than a Cambridge Analytica-tested campaign slogan, he should have swept out Pruitt for his sludgy conduct a long time ago.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.