'I Don't Know How You Survive This One': Pruitt's Condo Scandal Could Be His Last
From premium airfare to round-the-clock security, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt's receipts have raised alarm bells before, but could his latest controversy be the last straw?
During television appearances Sunday, several lawmakers and former Trump officials condemned the industry-friendly EPA administrator's alleged $50-a-night deal at a D.C. townhouse co-owned by an energy lobbyist and his wife.
"I don't know how you survive this one, and if he has to go, it's because he never should have been there in the first place," former Republican New Jersey governor and Trump transition head Chris Christie said on ABC News' This Week.
He "may be on his way out," Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama also said on the same show.
"I think he's in real trouble," Jones added. "People are just frustrated with Cabinet members who seem to want to use taxpayer dollars to fund their own personal lifestyle."
On CBS's Face the Nation, Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders said, "You got a guy who's head of the EPA now who is nothing more than a front man for the fossil fuel industry, and that is a very serious problem and the Congress has got to stand up and oppose that line of policy."
- Scott Pruitt worked directly with a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry and automakers to arrange a sweetheart deal on a townhouse co-owned by the lobbyist's wife in a high-priced D.C. neighborhood.
- The lobbyist—Steven Hart—is the head of the D.C. lobbying firm Williams and Jensen, which specifically lobbies the EPA on Clean Air Act policies, according to ABC. Hart represents Cheniere Energy, the company that owned the only operating Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) export plant in the U.S. at the time of Scott Pruitt's taxpayer-funded trip to Morocco where he advocated for LNG exports.
- Hart's firm also represents the American Automotive Policy Council, which includes automakers such as Ford, who lobbied Pruitt's forthcoming decision to roll back clean car standards.
- Pruitt reportedly paid for just one room in the otherwise unoccupied townhouse, and declined to tell ethics officials his adult daughter stayed in another room he was not paying for.
- Pruitt reportedly paid far below market value for the room he rented and ethics officials from both past Republican and Democratic administrations say he violated federal ethics rules for accepting gifts from lobbyists as a result, while ethics expert Norm Eisen noted the violations may "have crossed into criminal territory."
- Here is a map of AirBnB rates in the same neighborhood as the lobbyist's townhouse. Similar units cost up to $5,000 a month. Pruitt paid $6,100 for his entire six month stay.
- While living in the home, Hart continued to have dinner parties and functions, raising questions about whether political fundraisers were held in the house while Pruitt was there. Hart and his firm have donated more than $600,000 to political candidates this year.
- To top it off, Pruitt's security detail broke down the door of the townhouse concerned that Pruitt was unconscious. It turned out Pruitt was merely napping ... on a workday afternoon. The EPA reimbursed the lobbyist for the door, meaning he was likely paid with taxpayer dollars. (Speaking of taxpayer dollars—Pruitt has a habit of wasting money when he's not the one picking up the tab).
"This is not a simple conflict of interest—this is corruption, plan and simple," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said. "Pruitt got a sweetheart deal from a fossil fuel lobbyist and then pushed the agenda of that lobbyist at the EPA and on taxpayer-funded international trips—and that's just the latest scandal."
Brune continued, "The fossil fuel lobbyists Pruitt is taking favors and marching orders from are telling him to throw out the safeguards that keep our air and water safe from their pollution, and our kids are at risk as a result. The only way for this non-stop deluge of scandals and negative headlines to stop is for Pruitt to be fired immediately."
Congressmen Ted W. Lieu (D-Los Angeles County) had a similar opinion, tweeting directly at President Trump: "Republicans who don't believe in climate change and want to dismantle environmental protections are a dime a dozen. You don't need Scott Pruitt, who spent taxpayer dollars on first-class travel, violated ethics laws and is deeply paranoid. You should fire him."
Dear @realDonaldTrump: Republicans who don't believe in climate change & want to dismantle environmental protection… https://t.co/hMzOVZwUDW— Ted Lieu (@Ted Lieu)1522518331.0
Pruitt has not commented on the reports. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended the arrangement.
"As EPA career ethics officials stated in a memo, Administrator Pruitt's housing arrangement for both himself and family was not a gift and the lease was consistent with federal ethics regulations," he told Reuters.
The memo, from EPA ethics official Kevin Minoli, said such arrangements were not considered "gifts" if a federal official pays market value for them.
"Under the terms of the lease, if the space was utilized for one 30-day month, then the rental cost would be $1,500, which is a reasonable market price," the memo said.
However, Reuters reported that local real estate websites show that the average market price for a similar property in the area is at least three times as much.
Walter Shaub, the former Office of Government ethics director who resigned in July after clashes with the Trump administration, called the memo "total baloney."
He tweeted, "You cannot get a whole place to yourself in that prime location for $1,500 a month, nor will you find anyone willing to hold the place open for you all month and charge you only for the nights you use it."
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>