Living the life on taxpayers' dime: When Pruitt and others cross the line

A number of President Trump’s top appointees have been battling allegations of misconduct, from petty to profound, creating a growing distraction for his administration.

Trump has lashed out at the coverage of Scott Pruitt, expressing support for the EPA’s embattled administrator despite leaks that he’s displeased by all the negative attention. Pruitt, who bombed in an interview last week with Fox’s Ed Henry, is facing so many allegations that it’s hard for even journalists to keep track.

But the larger question is why a number of these officials keep stumbling into embarrassing or ethically questionable territory. There is clearly a temptation for newly arrived occupants of big-shot Washington jobs to throw their weight around, convinced that they deserve royal treatment.

Similar episodes have plagued previous administrations, along with more serious breaches that have in some cases led to prison terms.

People from the business world, who are accustomed to doing things their own way, often have little patience for federal rules and regulations. But Pruitt had been Oklahoma’s attorney general, and a state senator before that, so he’s hardly a stranger to political norms.

Pruitt rented a $50-a-night condo room from the wife of an energy lobbyist, payable only when he stayed there, and was eventually evicted when the landlords changed the locks. He is alleged to have helped arrange unauthorized raises for two staffers despite objections from the White House, and there are new concerns about an apparently no-show job for a third staffer. Several top officials who objected to Pruitt’s management practices are alleged to have been transferred or demoted; one complained about a proposed $100,000-a-month charter aircraft membership).

(That’s not even counting Pruitt’s request to use a siren to get through D.C. traffic to his favorite restaurant, Le Diplomate, or the work that began on a $40,000 soundproof booth for his office.)

Tom Price, the HHS secretary fired by Trump, had been a Georgia congressman and knew his way around the Beltway. He lost his job after Politico disclosed he had taken dozens of private jets--at a cost of $400,000—to an island resort, to an area where his son lives, and for a brief flight from Washington to Philadelphia.

Trump fired David Shulkin as VA secretary after an inspector general found serious problems with his $122,000 trip to Europe, which included air fare for his wife, and acceptance of free Wimbledon tickets. The report said Shulkin had spent half his time visiting castles and other tourist sites, and that an aide had altered an email to make Shulkin’s wife appear eligible for the $4,000 plane fare.

Shulkin is a doctor and former hospital executive, but he did serve as a VA undersecretary in the Obama administration, so he knew the agency’s culture.

Ben Carson had zero government experience before Trump tapped him as HUD secretary. He took enormous flak for ordering a $31,000 dining room set for his office, which he initially blamed on his wife before admitting he had some input and canceling the order. The doctor said that running a federal department was more complicated than brain surgery.

Anyone who’s run for county council should know that seeking these kinds of luxuries is asking for political trouble. The public may not focus much on the intricacies of policy, but a private jet, free tickets and costly custom-made furniture is easy to grasp and easier to resent. And it’s a tougher sell when they are Trump administration officials pushing for painful budget cuts in the services they oversee.

Whether Pruitt hangs on or not, these incidents should serve as a red flashing light to other officials thinking of pampering themselves at taxpayer expense.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author "Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth." Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.