WASHINGTON (CNN) - The free house-hunting help Scott Pruitt received from an Environmental Protection Agency aide may have been a violation of federal ethics rules, according to two government ethics experts.
Pruitt acknowledged Wednesday to a Senate committee that a political appointee in his office worked on his housing search, but said she was a "friend" working off the clock and was not paid for her assistance. He also said her work was unrelated to her large and controversial raise later approved by Pruitt's chief of staff.
"It's my understanding that all activity there was on personal time," Pruitt said at a Senate hearing. "And the individual that you're referring to is a longtime friend of my wife and myself."
His explanation of the unpaid work -- a "gift," in federal ethics language -- rang alarm bells for experts.
"Gifts from subordinates to their superiors -- even if they are 'friends' -- are forbidden," said Norman Eisen, President Barack Obama's top White House ethics official who is now a senior fellow at Brookings and chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Pruitt's friend defense "rings hollow," said Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics. He currently leads the ethics program at the Campaign Legal Center and, like Eisen, is a CNN contributor.
"If your boss asks you to house hunt for him on your free time, you're not really able to say no," Shaub added.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not respond to questions about whether Pruitt believed he violated federal ethics rules or whether the aide volunteered for the side assignment. In a short statement, he reiterated Pruitt's point that no "government resources were used" in the search. Wilcox also did not respond to a request for comment from the aide.
The Washington Post, however, reported in April that multiple people observed the aide, scheduler Millan Hupp, "at times conduct[ing] the search during office hours." Federal ethics rules bar officials from directing aides to perform personal tasks on government time.
But those rules, the experts note, also place strict limits on aides' work for their bosses when off-duty.
Subordinates may offer "on an occasional basis" gifts of less than $10, federal guidelines note. For example, the regulations say, an employee is allowed to return from vacation with "a bag of saltwater taffy purchased on the boardwalk for $8," and gift it to her boss."
"Given the size of her salary, it's safe to say her house hunting services were a gift worth more than $10," Shaub said.
Gifts over that amount are allowed only at "special infrequent occasions," the guidelines say. This typically comes into play for retirement gifts, Shaub said, when concerns about influencing the supervisor aren't at issue because of the supervisor's imminent departure.
"I'd call it a misuse of position," Shaub said.
The top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee holding the hearing, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, noted the matter is under investigation by the EPA inspector general.
"He admitted he didn't pay staff to house hunt, which is illegal," Udall told reporters after the hearing.
Pruitt also denied Hupp's housing search was related to the substantial raises she received since joining the agency in March 2017.
About four months into her tenure, Hupp's pay was boosted by $20,000. She received another $28,000 raise in April 2018. Combined, those raises boosted her pay by 72%.
After media reports, Pruitt later said he halted the second raise.
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