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US environment chief under pressure for paying below-market condo rent

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The condo that EPA chief Scott Pruitt lived in during his first six months in Washington last year.

Washington

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt may not survive long in his job after reports surfaced that he paid below market rate to live in a condo owned by a lobbyist who deals with issues overseen by his agency, lawmakers and a former Trump official said in television interviews on Sunday.

Last Friday, ABC News and Bloomberg News reported that during Mr Pruitt's first six months in Washington last year, he made a deal to pay about US$50 a night - less than a third the price of similar properties - to rent a room in a Capitol Hill neighbourhood condo building co-owned by energy industry lobbyist Steven Hart and his wife.

"I don't know how you survive this one, and if he has to go, it's because he never should have been there in the first place," said Chris Christie, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, on Sunday on ABC News' This Week programme. Mr Christie was for a short time the head of US President Donald Trump's transition team.

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ABC later reported that Mr Pruitt's daughter also used the apartment in 2017 during her tenure as a White House summer intern, which Mr Hart's wife said was not agreed in their lease.

Mr Pruitt declined comment on the reports. The White House referred reporters to the EPA, which said the arrangement had been cleared by the agency's ethics officials.

Mr Pruitt has already faced public criticism for his frequent use of first-class flights, which is under investigation by the EPA Inspector General, and installing a US$43,000 secure phone booth to conduct confidential calls.

He "may be on his way out" after the latest reports, said Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama later on the same ABC News show. "I think he's in real trouble," he added. "People are just frustrated with Cabinet members who seem to want to use taxpayer dollars to fund their own personal lifestyle."

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended the arrangement in an e-mail last Friday. "As EPA career ethics officials stated in a memo, Mr Pruitt's housing arrangement for both himself and family was not a gift and the lease was consistent with federal ethics regulations," he said.

That memo said such arrangements were not considered "gifts" if a federal official pays market value for them. "Under the terms of the lease, if the space was utilised for one 30-day month, then the rental cost would be US$1,500, which is a reasonable market price," it said.

Local real estate websites show that the average market price for a similar property in the area is at least three times as much. REUTERS