House Democrats on Friday formally requested that the Justice Department investigate Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt for potential criminal conduct.
In a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray and Justice criminal division chief John Cronan, six Democratic lawmakers with oversight of Pruitt's agency allege he repeatedly violated federal anti-corruption laws by seeking to leverage his government position for personal gain.
As evidence, the Democrats cite Pruitt's $50-a-night lease of a Capitol Hill condo tied to a lobbyist seeking to influence his agency, directing an EPA aide to contact a senior Chick-fil-A executive as part of an effort to land his family a franchise, and a $2,000 payment to his wife from organizers of a conference the administrator then attended at taxpayer expense.
Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle confirmed officials there were aware of the request to investigate Pruitt. He declined further comment.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox referred questions to Pruitt's outside legal counsel, though he did not respond to requests to provide the name of the administrator's defense lawyer.
Pruitt acknowledged last month that friends and supporters had established a legal defense fund, which Democrats and ethics watchdogs quickly derided as a potential "tip jar" for polluters seeking favorable treatment from his agency.
Friday's letter was signed by Democratic Reps. Gerald Connolly and Donald Beyer of Virginia, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Ted Lieu of California. Connolly is a senior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and serves as the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Government Operations.
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President Donald Trump signaled Friday he is still standing by his embattled EPA chief, even as Pruitt's support among other Republicans has started to erode.
"Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA," Trump told reporters at the White House. "I mean, we're setting records. Outside he's being attacked very viciously by the press. And I'm not saying that he's blameless. But we'll see what happens."
There are now at least a dozen ongoing investigations related to Pruitt by EPA's Office of Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and congressional oversight committees. But if the Justice Department acts on Friday's request from House Democrats, it would be the first criminal probe into Pruitt's ethical conduct.
For his part, Pruitt sought to laugh off the controversy this week over his using government resources to seek a "business opportunity" with the fast-food fried chicken chain whose owners are known for supporting conservative Christian causes, including outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage.
"I mean, look, my wife is an entrepreneur herself. I love, she loves, we love Chick-fil-A as a franchise of faith," Pruitt said in a TV interview on Wednesday.
Pruitt last year directed his EPA scheduler to reach out to a top executive at Chick-fil-A to inquire about a "business opportunity." That business opportunity turned out to be Pruitt's desire to acquire a fast-food franchise for his wife.
Federal ethics codes prohibit having staffers conduct personal errands and bar officials from using their position for private gain.
EPA travel vouchers also show Pruitt charged taxpayers last September for a $1,210 one-way flight and $669 in hotel costs to appear at a conference of a New York City-based nonprofit, Concordia.
At Pruitt's overture, the group hired his wife, Marlyn Pruitt, to help arrange logistics for the conference, Concordia chief executive Matthew Swift told The Washington Post. She was paid $2,000 plus travel expenses. Concordia did not return emails from the AP seeking comment, and the group's website lists a non-working phone number.
Democratic senators this week accused Pruitt of withholding records of the trip, where Pruitt also met with U.S. and international business leaders and former government officials. The senators asked EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. to investigate the agency's compliance with open-records laws in the matter.
Virginia Canter, an ethics counsel for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said there were a "number of criminal conflict of interest statutes and regulations" that could be brought into play by Pruitt speaking at events that he or his family had received payment for.
In their letter, the lawmakers make the case that Pruitt's behavior rises to the level of criminal activity.
"At the very least, we know that federal ethics laws bar public officials from using their position or staff for private gain," the Democrats wrote to Wray and Cronan. "Administrator Pruitt has certainly done just that. Further, his actions related to his wife's employment and the quid-pro-quo condo situation with industry lobbyists may have crossed a line into criminal conduct punishable by fines or even by time in prison."