Abusing Authority: Why Scott Pruitt Matters

EASTSIDER-For too much of my life, I’ve been involved with government -- working as an employee of public agencies, representing public employees before administrative bodies, and even running two administrative agencies themselves. That’s why I can’t simply let EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s behavior get a pass. 

Full disclosure. During decades of working in this area, I have always had one overriding red line: the abuse of authority. In the private sector, the ability to abuse goes with the territory, because there is really no check and balance. That is obviously the background of President Trump, so his abuse of authority was baked in long before he ran for President. Actually, the same is true for many elected officials in the public sector. 

However, the backbone of all public-sector agencies, be they cities, counties, states, schools, or the federal government, are not the politicians. They are the literally millions of employees who are paid for by your and my taxes. And here’s why. 

When I talk to friends and neighbors, there are often complaints about nasty, lazy public employees. When I press them for specifics, and I do, a lot of the comments have to do with simply watching too much television and forming an opinion without evidence. On the other hand, there are also a lot of legitimate complaints about poor service, disinclination to seek a solution, or failure to help the caller get to the right person, curt responses without any answers, etc. 

Honestly, the cure for most of these behaviors is to remind public service employees that they are the first and most important contact community members have with government; opinions formed about these workers, whether good or bad, will be made within 30 seconds. This realization, combined with actual positive feedback from management, can make a huge difference in an employee’s attitude and the public’s attitude towards government. 

In almost all the agencies I’ve worked with over the years, there are rules covering discipline and discharge of a public employee. As to most folks, usually they are introduced to public employees via an incendiary newspaper or tv expose, which results in discipline or discharge. The theory is that “public servant” actually means something, and everyone should be accountable. Well, it’s true. 

Enter Scott Pruitt 

I have no problem holding public employees accountable, and truth to tell, neither do most of the employees. What is troubling, however, is when the folks at the top of the food chain behave poorly and get away with it. Like some Cabinet members and other appointed folks who are running things for the Feds. 

Enter one Scott Pruitt, a lawyer from Oklahoma, who rose to become the Attorney General of that State. According toWikipedia, he opposes abortion rights, same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act, and, of interest to us here, environmental regulations. 

So, what are the troops to think at the EPA, even as all the regulations they are sworn to uphold are thrown in the trash, often with no legal basis for the agency position. And even as these demoralizing events are taking place and they are told that they are essentially useless, their Ubergruppenfuhrer Mr. Pruitt is running around giving new meaning to the term “perks” and abuse of authority.  Like: 

- the $50/night condo he rented in D.C. from a lobbyist who major clients appear before the EPA 

- giving big time raises to a couple of toadie aides, bypassing the White House and federal rules governing pay increases. Big time here being defined as $80,000 between the two of them. Even worse, when he got caught, he lied through his teeth, denying that he was aware the raises were given out in the first place.”   

- flaunting his status by flying first class on the taxpayers’ dime to his home state of Oklahoma, causing the Office of Government Ethics to wonder if these trips "to offset the expense of returning home for personal and political reasons" raise concerns about whether he is using his office "for personal gain in violation of ethics rules.

-displaying the true paranoia that lies within, Mr. Pruitt evidently needs a 20-member security detail to run around with him on trips, to save him from what? Rabid environmentalists? Crazed minorities? Democrats? 

-and finally, my favorite, speaking for the troops. Draconian punishment for those employees who won’t “kiss the ring” of their leader: 

“At least five officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, four of them high-ranking, were reassigned or demoted, or requested new jobs in the past year after they raised concerns about the spending and management of the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt.” 

The Takeaway 

As some Italian Union friends used to say, “a fish rots from the head.”  It wasn’t until much later that I learned this was not some Mafia saying but had a governmental meaning: “When an organization or state fails, it is the leadership that is the root cause.” 

Considering that Mr. Pruitt as head of the EPA displays the ethical instincts of a petty tyrant, crook or both, then what message does that deliver to the employees of the Environmental Protection Agency? And when the President of the United States supports him, saying that its ok because Pruitt is doing exactly what the President wants, what message does that send to the troops? You know what message -- do as I tell you, shut up, and we don’t care if it breaks the law. Call me out and be punished. Wonderful. 

Sadly, Scott Pruitt may be the poster child for abuse of authority by a Cabinet member, but he is far from the only one who engages in this type of amoral hypocrisy. And that is not good for the future of our federal government and the employees we rely on for our social security checks, Medicare, and other critical regulatory functions. 

What all these shenanigans do over time, is to demoralize the overwhelming majority of really good federal employees who simply do their job, trying to help residents get through the Byzantine federal bureaucracy intact, and do actually help them. There is also a side effect that more of the public buys into the lazy public employee myth without a shred of evidence. 

Maybe the fish does rot from the head. You think?

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.