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Condo controversy continues to spread for EPA's Pruitt

Aaron P. Bernstein/Stringer/Getty Images Scott Pruitt testifies during his confirmation hearing.
Pruitt continues to have President Trump's support.

by Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter

The lobbyist whose wife rented a bedroom in a Capitol Hill condo to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt says he met with Pruitt last July with the charitable arm of pork processor Smithfield Foods Inc., despite earlier saying he hadn’t lobbied the agency on behalf of clients in the past year.

Revelations that J. Steven Hart was present at a meeting with Pruitt in an official capacity at least once in 2017 -- and had a lobbying contact with the Environmental Protection Agency this year -- coincided with Hart’s departure on Friday as chairman of the law and lobbying firm Williams & Jensen. Hart had previously said he didn’t lobby the EPA this year or last. 

Williams & Jensen said in an emailed statement that Hart “informed the firm of his decision to resign” on Friday. “We are grateful to Steve for his 35 years of service and we wish him and his family well in all of their future endeavors,” the firm said. Hart’s biography page has been removed from the firm’s website. 

“Considering the last couple of weeks, I think it is easier on my family and the firm to expedite my departure,” Hart told colleagues in an email viewed by Bloomberg News.

It’s the latest sign that fallout from Pruitt’s condo controversy is continuing to spread -- even if it hasn’t led so far to serious repercussions for the EPA chief, who was backed by President Donald Trump on Twitter earlier this month.

Fundraising Events

On Thursday, a watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that a campaign committee for Senator Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, improperly used the same condo to host political fundraising events, without paying its owner to use the space. And earlier this month, the District of Columbia cited the condo’s co-owner, Vicki Hart, for operating a rental without the required license.

Pruitt has come under fire for renting one of the two bedrooms in the unit, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, under unusually favorable terms allowing him to pay $50 per day to lease the space -- but only on the nights he stayed there.

In all, Pruitt paid $6,100 to use the room for roughly six months last year, according to canceled checks with irregular dates, sometimes coming six weeks apart. Pruitt was required to leave his bedroom door unlocked and was barred from using common areas, which continued to be a venue for dinner parties and meetings during his stay.

Smithfield Foods

The controversy drew in Steven Hart, too, bringing attention to his clients with business before the EPA. Hart said he didn’t personally lobby the EPA in 2017 or this year, and Pruitt said in a Fox News Channel appearance this month that his landlady’s husband had no clients with business before the agency. The newly filed disclosure appears to contradict that claim; several of Hart’s corporate clients also had matters pending before the agency. 

That includes pork processor Smithfield, a subsidiary of WH Group Ltd., China’s largest meat producer. According to a lobbying disclosure filed by Williams & Jensen on Friday, Hart had some lobbying contact with the EPA on behalf of the company during the first quarter of this year. The form doesn’t specify the type or extent of the contact -- just that it involved “issues relating to support for EPA Chesapeake Bay programs.”

Quarterly Filing 

Virginia-based Smithfield was fined $12.6 million for dumping hog waste into Chesapeake Bay in 1997, in what was then the largest water pollution fine ever. The EPA works with federal and state agencies and non-government programs to coordinate restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, a major estuary to the North Atlantic Ocean, and has set pollution limits to keep too much nitrogen, phosphorus and other materials from running off into the bay.

“An independent review of the firm’s lobbying activity in advance of the quarterly filing deadline concluded that Mr. Hart had lobbying contact with the Environmental Protection Agency in the first quarter of 2018,” Williams & Jensen said in an emailed statement. “The firm has filed the requisite disclosure forms required by law accordingly.”

In an emailed statement, Smithfield said the lobbying wasn’t undertaken “at the direction or on behalf” of the company. Instead, Smithfield said, it was in his personal capacity at the request of Dennis Treacy, a former Smithfield executive and current board member of the Smithfield Foundation -- the company’s nonprofit philanthropic arm, which supports hunger relief efforts.

Chesapeake Bay

Hart said Saturday that he’d never lobbied for Smithfield Foods.

“I assisted a friend who served on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, and this is inaccurately being tied to Smithfield Foods,” Hart said in an emailed statement, referring to Treacy, who’s a member of the commission. “I was not paid for this assistance, and any suggestion that I lobbied for Smithfield Foods is inaccurate." 

Emails viewed by Bloomberg News show that Hart made plans to meet with Pruitt at least once in 2017, joining Treacy for an introductory meeting with the administrator.

Treacy -- a former chief sustainability officer at Smithfield -- reached out to the EPA last spring and requested a meeting with Pruitt, citing his new role on the commission, the emails show. Treacy described himself as having recently retired and mentioned “a focused and unique view of environmental protection.”

Tagging Along

The day before the July 11 meeting -- which took place while Pruitt was still renting from Hart’s wife -- the lobbyist emailed Pruitt’s chief of staff to say Treacy had asked him to come along. “He is a good guy and can be trusted,” Hart said in the email. “He is coming in as the business rep on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation -- another of your controversies.”

Hart’s description was off in at least one regard; Treacy is a Virginia citizen representative on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative commission -- and is not a business rep on the not-for-profit foundation. The Trump administration sought unsuccessfully to slash funding for the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program office last year.

Representatives of the EPA didn’t provide a comment.

Hart said he began transitioning to honorary chairman of Williams & Jensen after giving up his chief executive officer title two years ago, was planning to retire from the firm in November, and had begun negotiating a severance agreement earlier this year.

Hart told his colleagues he was looking forward to developing an independent legal practice and doing some strategic business counseling for a few clients.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Washington at [email protected]; Ari Natter in Washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at [email protected]

Elizabeth Wasserman

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P

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