Ethical questions continue to swirl around U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt’s apparent use of his government position for personal gain.
In a strange revelation, emails obtained by the Sierra Club under a Freedom of Information Act show that Pruitt directed one of his former aides to set up a meeting with the chief executive of fast food chain Chick-fil-A, the purpose of which a spokeswoman told The Washington Post was to inquire about the possibility of Pruitt’s wife opening a franchise.
Federal ethics standards prohibit the use of government time to conduct personal business, as well as directing employees to handle such matters even when off-duty. When asked about the franchise inquiry by a reporter on Wednesday, Pruitt simply brushed it off — but the House Oversight Committee is watching.
Conducting one of more than a dozen investigations into the leader’s actions, the committee released part of an interview with Sydney Hupp, the aide who scheduled that meeting, in which she explained she regularly performed tasks that were personal in nature for her boss, including an unusual request to ask about obtaining a used mattress from the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. Hupp claimed that she was also tasked with hunting for apartments for Pruitt and was asked to help arrange a trip for his family to attend the Rose Bowl in California last year.
Hupp, who previously worked for Pruitt during his time as Oklahoma Attorney General, left the EPA last year. And this week, her sister Millan Hupp, also resigned along with Sarah Greenwalt, a member of Pruitt’s senior counsel. Hupp and Greenwalt came under scrutiny earlier this year when it was reported that they had both received substantial pay increases that circumvented the required White House approval process.
After more news came on Thursday that Pruitt had reportedly enlisted his private security detail to run errands — and bizarrely take him in search of a particular lotion — the EPA offered little more than to say Pruitt “follows the same security protocol whether he’s in his personal or official capacity.”
While EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox wrote in an email Monday that the agency is fully cooperating in providing the House Oversight Committee with documentation regarding Pruitt’s travel and spending, when asked by a reporter for The Atlantic about Hupp’s resignation, Wilcox declined to comment and referred to the reporter as a “piece of trash.”
Also in the news:
• When it comes to scientific research, the United States spends more than any other country in the world — $500 billion a year to be exact. But according to the National Science Board, that edge may be quickly fading, with China on course to overtake the U.S. by the end of this year. Researchers who have relocated cite the rapidly-advancing country’s focus on building infrastructure as one of its big attractions. “Right now, China is the best place in the world to start your own laboratory,” said José Pastor-Pareja, a Spanish geneticist who moved to China from the U.S. in 2012. Experts on Chinese science say that as research in the U.S. has been threatened with budget cuts and new immigration policies, in addition to a lack of White House leadership, people are finding more promising opportunities elsewhere. (Washington Post)
• Immunotherapy — mobilizing a patient’s immune system to attack deadly tumors — has been hailed as the most promising advance against cancer in decades. But two developments this week make it clear that these expensive treatments are still in their early days, with many questions still to be answered. The first, reported in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine, involved an immunotherapy drug being tested against T-cell leukemia lymphoma, a rare cancer caused by a viral infection. The trial had to be stopped after three of the 20 patients got much sicker; doctors said the drug, nivolumab, seemed to be stimulating their cancer. “We really were quite shocked,” said the doctor who organized the trial. But in a test of a different treatment for a different illness — this one on a 49-year-old woman with fast-advancing breast cancer — doctors were pleasantly surprised. Her tumors disappeared and she is cancer-free after nearly two years, even though immunotherapy has generally had uncertain success against breast cancer. The treatment (injection of the tumor’s immunity-promoting T-cells back into the patient’s body, helped along by the drug pembrolizumab) is worth trying in other patients, the doctors wrote in Nature Medicine. (New York Times, Science)
• When Hurricane Harvey stalled over Texas last year, it dropped more than 51 inches across the state, capturing the record for the wettest tropical hurricane in the contiguous U.S. It was one of many slower-moving tropical cyclones of the past 70 years, according to a new study published this week in the journal Nature. The researcher, James Kossin, a climate scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, focused on what’s called translation speed, or how fast a tropical cyclone travels over an area. He found a 10 percent decrease, from 1949 to 2016, in the speed at which storms are moving across the planet, in effect giving them more time to cause destruction over any given area. In the western North Pacific Ocean, the decrease was closer to 30 percent, and in Australia, 19 percent. Kossin’s research reinforces a separate study published last year that also found a slowdown in storm speed, along with higher precipitation rates. (New York Times)
• The long and arduous road to firmly establishing (or refuting) the presence (or history) of life on Mars took an exhilarating leap forward this week when researchers reported in the journal Science that rock samples taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed on the Red Planet in 2012, presented evidence of organic macromolecules that the journal’s news arm described as “strikingly similar to the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth.” Whether that similarity will eventually evolve into proof that complex life once thrived on Mars remains unclear. A key building block of fossil fuels on Earth, kerogen, was formed through billions of years of heat and pressure on the remains of plants and animals. But the kerogen-like fingerprints uncovered by the NASA team might have non-organic origins — delivered to Mars by a meteor hit, say, or arising from volcanic activity. Still, researchers everywhere remained hopeful. “I suspect it’s geological,” one scientist unaffiliated with the study said. “I hope it’s biological.” (Science)
• The painful news of two very high-profile suicides, that of 55-year-old fashion designer Kate Spade and 61-year-old celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, was reported this week. Spade’s death — she was known to have suffered from chronic depression — led to a national conversation about recognizing the risks and improving treatment for mental illness. And as a report issued this week emphasizes, suicide has become an increasing public health problem. Suicide rates have risen by an average of 25 percent in the U.S. over the past couple of decades, with some states reporting an increase of more than 50 percent in that time period. The numbers, released in a report this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that between 1999 and 2016, suicides went up in every single state except one. That was Nevada, which recorded a 1 percent drop. During that same time period, suicides rose by nearly 58 percent in North Dakota, 48 percent in New Hampshire, and 47 percent in Utah (a state-by-state breakdown can be found here). Only about half the people who died had a diagnosed mental health condition, the agency said; other factors included financial stress, health, troubled relationships, and substance abuse. The rates increased in both urban and rural areas and across all genders and races, the study showed, and among Americans aged 15 to 34, suicide is now the second leading cause of death. “The data are disturbing,” said the CDC’s principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat, noting that the across-the-board nature of the increase indicates that “this is a national problem hitting most communities.” Mental health professionals emphasized the need for a deeper commitment to counseling and other support services at every level. The toll free number for the suicide prevention hotline is: 1-800-273-8255. (The Washington Post)
• And finally: Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced since the 1950s, more than 75 percent has been thrown away. Just one effect of that wastefulness was on display this week, when a whale stranded off the southern coast of Thailand was found to have 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Veterinarians removed some 80 black garbage-style bags during an autopsy, after spending five days trying to save the pilot whale’s life. With Thailand among the top countries where plastic waste was mismanaged in 2010, according to a study in Science, some are using the whale’s death to push the country to reduce its use of plastic bags. Other countries have already implemented or begun pushing for similar measures regarding plastic straws and other single-use items. (NPR)
UPDATE: This post has been updated to correct the name of the House Oversight Committee.