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Trump's Cabinet Under Scrutiny

KORVA COLEMAN, HOST:

Watchdog and environmental groups are calling for an investigation of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt after reports that Pruitt may have received a sweetheart housing deal from the wife of an energy lobbyist. Pruitt is just one of several members of the Trump administration who have found themselves under an ethics microscope. Just last week, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin became the second member of Trump's Cabinet fired amid allegations of alleged misconduct. And NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Korva.

COLEMAN: Scott, let's begin with the EPA administrator. Why is Scott Pruitt under scrutiny?

HORSLEY: The immediate focus is his living arrangements last year when Pruitt rented a room in an apartment on Capitol Hill. Now, according to Bloomberg and ABC, he paid the landlord $50 a night but only for the nights he was actually in town. So his overall cost appears to be well below what he would've paid to say rent an apartment by the month in the neighborhood.

Now, the reason this raises eyebrows is that apartment is owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist who represents companies that are regulated by the EPA. And on Pruitt's watch, the EPA has been working to roll back regulations. So there have been a number of calls for the inspector general at the agency to investigate whether this apparently favorable room rental rate is some kind of political payback.

COLEMAN: So what are Pruitt's defenders saying?

HORSLEY: They insist there is no ethical foul here. They're calling this a straight-ahead, business-type transaction. Some have likened the daily rental rate he paid to something you might find on Airbnb.

COLEMAN: So this isn't the first time Pruitt's drawn this kind of criticism. Isn't that so?

HORSLEY: No. He has been keeping the inspector general busy. There were questions raised earlier this year about his overreliance on pricey first-class airline tickets. The EPA initially said he needed to fly first class because he was getting hostile threats from the unruly crowds back in coach. Pruitt, though, has since said he will fly coach on occasion and rely on his security detail to look after him. The administrator, by the way, enjoys round-the-clock security, which is unusual for somebody in his position.

COLEMAN: Now, it's not just Pruitt. There have been similar complaints about other members of President Trump's Cabinet. And it's cost some of them their jobs. Can you tell us about that?

HORSLEY: That's right. VA Secretary David Shulkin was booted just this past week. He had been the target of a scathing inspector general's report for taking his wife along on a trip to Europe at taxpayers' expense. Now, Shulkin and some others argue that was just a pretext and that he was really fired over policy differences, concerning privatization of veterans health care.

But there's no dispute about former Health Secretary Tom Price. He was definitely fired last September for taking too many trips on private jets at government expense. You also have HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who tried to buy that $31,000 dining room set for his office...

COLEMAN: The dinette set.

HORSLEY: ...Blamed it on his wife. And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has drawn questions over his travel expenses and also because his staff ordered some very expensive doors for his government office.

COLEMAN: Scott, is it unusual to have so many people in an administration under scrutiny?

HORSLEY: It is unusual. One watchdog group has called this the most ethically challenged administration ever. This is, remember, the wealthiest Cabinet ever. And there were a lot of financial entanglements. But many of those who've fallen under scrutiny are not the billionaire businesspeople but rather folks who have some experience in government.

You also have a president whose own example breaks with a lot of ethical norms. I mean, this is a president who never released his tax returns. He never divested from his own businesses. And he spends a lot of weekends, including this one, traveling to vacation homes on the taxpayer dime.

COLEMAN: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.