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Lawmakers grill EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt over ethics scandals, spending

Pruitt, hanging on to his job, is testifying before two House subcommittees on Thursday.

by Rebecca Shabad /  / Updated 
Image: Scott Pruitt
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington on Thursday.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

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WASHINGTON — Lawmakers excoriated EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for recent revelations of ethical lapses and excessive spending during a hearing on the EPA's 2019 budget request Thursday, with Democrats and at least one Republican informing the embattled agency chief that they found his leadership lacking.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce committee, called Pruitt an "embarrassment to President Trump" and said that if he were president, "I'd just get rid of you."

Pallone also said he was confident that further investigations into the reports of lavish trips and pricey office purchases will "affirm what I’ve come to believe is true: that you are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust."

In his opening statement, Pruitt generally addressed some of the allegations he faces — ranging from retaliation against staffers who questioned him to exotic trips on taxpayers' dime to the purchase of a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth in his office — and said that he has "nothing to hide" in how he has led the EPA. He added that much of what has been said about him has been "half-truths or stories that have been so twisted that they do not resemble reality."

But support for Pruitt on Capitol Hill has waned in recent days, with even a handful of congressional Republicans joining Democrats in critiquing his conduct and calling for his resignation. Late last month, it also became known that Pruitt paid only $50 a night to stay in a Capitol Hill condo with connections to a Washington-based lobbyist who works at a firm that represents fossil fuel companies. And in April, the Associated Press reported that the EPA had spent millions on a 20-member security detail for Pruitt.

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Democrats on Thursday unleashed a coordinated assault, pressing Pruitt to answer "yes" or "no" questions about his spending — which he declined to do. He frequently told lawmakers that he did not know, or could not recall details related to the reports, causing one Republican, retiring Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., for example, to remark that he found some of Pruitt's answers "lacking or insufficient."

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who slammed Pruitt for demonstrating "a lack of respect for American taxpayers" in his opening remarks, grilled Pruitt about significant raises given to two EPA employees who followed him to Washington from Oklahoma over White House objections.

Pruitt had said in a previous TV interview that he was unaware of those raises, but backtracked Thursday and acknowledged that he had authorized his chief of staff to sign documents for those raises. However, Pruitt maintained that he was "not aware" of the amounts, or that he was bypassing certain procedures.

"Well then, I’m concerned that you have no idea what is going on in your name at your agency," Tonko said.

Pallone asked about reports that Pruitt retaliated against staffers who questioned his decisions by reassigning or demoting them. Pruitt said, "I don't ever recall a conversation to that end."

Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., also pressed Pruitt about the alleged retaliation.

"There’s no truth to the assertion that decisions have been made about reassignment or otherwise as far as employment status based upon the things that you reference," said Pruitt. "I'm not aware of that ever happening."

Pruitt also claimed Thursday that there have been two ethics reviews about the condo lease and insisted that it "met market rates."

Regarding the phone booth in his office, Pruitt said that he never expressed that $43,000 was "appropriate," but rejected the finding from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the purchase violated federal law.

In an exchange with Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., Pruitt said that it has not be certified as a SCIF, or a sensitive compartmented information facility, but he said it does provide protection on confidential communications. The purchase, Pruitt said, occurred after he received a phone call of a sensitive nature and did not have access to secure communications. He said he hadn't heard the price tag in advance, and if he had, he would have "refused it."

Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., told Pruitt the phone booth was a "waste of funds."

"Isn't there other secure locations within your agency? Why did we need to spend taxpayer funds to build a new secure place for making telephone calls?" Lance said. "There are already secure locations and I think it was a waste of funds."

Added Costello, "I believe you’ve demonstrated, or you’ve not demonstrated, the requisite degree of judgment required of an appointed executive branch official on some of these spending items."

Still, many Republicans defended the embattled administrator. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Ohio, said that it's "shameful" that the hearing had turned into a "personal attack" against Pruitt, while Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said that Pruitt is not the "first person to be a victim" of Washington politics.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., praised Pruitt's record as EPA chief so far, arguing that the "greatest sin" that he has committed is fulfilling Trump's agenda to roll back environmental regulations.

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