Four Senate Democrats asked Scott Pruitt on Monday for details about a new legal defense fund to help the Environmental Protection Agency administrator as he weathers a series of federal ethics investigations.
Pruitt confirmed at a Senate hearing last week that people he did not identify have created the legal defense fund in his behalf, but he gave no specifics on its operation. Officials typically use such funds to help cover any legal bills for themselves and sometimes for others.
Under questioning last week from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Pruitt said, "Yeah, absolutely" when Van Hollen asked him to commit to refusing any donations to the fund from lobbyists or companies with business before the EPA.
Neither Pruitt nor the EPA has made public any other information about his defense fund since then. Pruitt is the subject of probes by the EPA's inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, Congress and others investigating allegations about his spending, relationships with lobbyists and other matters.
In a letter from Van Hollen and three other Senate Democrats, the lawmakers asked Pruitt within 10 days to provide all the documents that went into setting up the defense fund, and any communication involving the EPA's ethics office about the fund.
Asked by The Associated Press for information about Pruitt's defense fund, Cleta Mitchell, the Washington lawyer reported by The Washington Post to have handled setting up the fund, responded by email, "No."
An Oklahoma native like Pruitt, Mitchell is known for arguing for narrow interpretations of financial disclosure requirements in politics, as in a 2012 essay she wrote for a Minnesota law review titled, "Donor disclosure: Undermining the First Amendment," which protects free speech. She argued for the National Rifle Association in a 2002 case against tougher financial-disclosure laws in politics.
Called "the attack attorney of choice for Tea Party stars" by the Wall Street Journal in 2010, Mitchell is a spirited defender of Pruitt on Twitter, tweeting last month, "Pruitt is an American hero, dedicated to draining the Swamp. This brave man dares to wrangle the EPA to its proper role. Hang in there, Scott Pruitt!!"
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not respond to an AP email asking for the contact of someone who could comment on the fund.
The senators — Van Hollen and Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Tom Carper of Delaware — asked Pruitt to commit to publishing a monthly list of donors to the fund. The four senators are members of committees on Capitol Hill with oversight authority over EPA.
They also asked Pruitt to respond to 14 questions about the fund. Those included whether EPA employees or their spouses would be allowed to give to it; what involvement the EPA's ethics office would have overseeing the fund; and whether the fund would abide by the federal Office of Government Ethics' guidelines of $50 annual limits on gifts from any one person.
"Without further clarification of these issues, your legal defense fund may lead to more complaints that you may be violating the public trust," Van Hollen and the other senators wrote. "We believe a person in your position should regularly and publicly disclose all donors to a legal defense fund" to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
When it comes to legal defense funds for members of the executive branch, recommendations by the Office of Government Ethics are advisory only, lacking direct enforcement power, experts in government ethics and financial disclosure law told the AP.
Guidelines include recommendations that officials avoid accepting anonymous gifts. Tax laws and government codes on what kind of gifts officials may accept govern some aspects of the funds, depending on how a particular fund is set up. Regulations that dictate financial disclosure overall by officials like Pruitt, the senators noted, may require no more than annual reports.
"They are very tricky entities and present potential for abuse," Lawrence Noble, general director of the Campaign Legal Center and former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission, said of the defense funds for members of the executive branch. "There's too much leeway in terms of what they allow."