Lawmakers grill EPA chief on spending and ethics scandals

During a hearing on Capitol Hill, Scott Pruitt called the controversies a ‘distraction.’

 

This article was originally published by The Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has blamed the media and the “learning process” of his job for the flurry of ethical controversies that have engulfed his tenure, during a lacerating congressional hearing on April 26.

Pruitt said opponents of Donald Trump, and the media, had sought to “derail the president’s agenda and priorities” by highlighting the questionable use of taxpayer funds for first-class flights, office furniture and 24-hour personal security, as well as his use of a Washington apartment owned by an energy lobbyist’s wife.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, pictured here in 2017, faced tough questions from lawmakers during congressional hearings on April 26, 2018.

However, Pruitt did not offer explanations for the numerous revelations and did not deny that he authorized sizable pay increases for two staffers, against the White House’s wishes. “I wasn’t aware of the amount nor was I aware of the PPO (presidential personnel office) process not being respected,” he said, saying the matter was “delegated” to Ryan Jackson, his chief of staff.

This contradicts a TV interview earlier this month when Pruitt said he had no idea about the raises. Pruitt has also previously falsely claimed that the lobbyist, Steven Hart, had no business before the EPA when he rented his wife’s apartment.

Pruitt has come under severe pressure over the $50-a-night apartment deal, his spending of more than $100,000 from the public purse on first-class flights in his first year as EPA administrator, ostensibly to evade abuse from fellow passengers, as well as taking a large security detail on trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl.

He also oversaw the spending of $43,000 on a soundproof booth for his office, in violation of federal rules, and has reportedly retaliated against staffers who questioned his spending. Pruitt is facing multiple federal government investigations over his conduct, including two different White House inquiries.

Facing the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, Pruitt departed from his prepared remarks to decry the “distorted” reporting that has exposed his activities. “I have nothing to hide as it relates to how I run the agency in the past 16 months,” he said. “Facts are facts and fiction is fiction. A lie doesn’t become true just because it’s on the front page.”

Pruitt said he was “not afraid to admit there has been a learning process” and vowed to correct any problems within the EPA. But he said that those who have “attacked the EPA and me have done so to derail the president’s agenda and priorities and I won’t let that happen.”

Pruitt declined to apologize but said the ethics scandals have proved a “distraction” to the EPA. He said he had no idea of the $43,000 spent on the soundproof booth and cited security concerns for the first-class travel arrangements, reading out threats to “put a bullet between your eyes” and another that said: “I hope your father dies soon in agony in front of your mother.” This was despite a recent report claiming that Pruitt flew in coach on some flights that were at his own expense.

Committee Democrats poured scorn on Pruitt’s responses and repeatedly called on him to resign, in a combative hearing. “There’s seemingly endless misconduct, a pattern of putting personal and special interests ahead of the American people,” said Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York. “You’ve abused this position for personal gain. You were never fit for this job.”

Frank Pallone, another Democrat, said Pruitt had used the job to “enrich himself and his corporate friends” with the apparent approval of Trump. “If I were the president I wouldn’t want your help, I’d just get rid of you,” he told Pruitt.

Pruitt has earned Trump’s admiration for his zeal in repealing environmental regulations and dismantling of action on climate change, such as Pruitt’s successful agitation for the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris climate accords. Trump has tweeted that Pruitt is “doing a great job.”

But in recent days the White House has sought to distance itself from the beleaguered EPA chief as the extraordinary number of ethical problems mounted. Sarah Sanders, Trump’s spokeswoman, said on Wednesday that “we expect the EPA administrator to answer” concerns raised by Congress.

Environment groups and Democrats have called for Pruitt’s removal, joined by a small band of Republicans. During the committee hearing, Republicans praised Pruitt’s deregulation agenda but some also raised concerns over his spending. “These issues are too persistent to ignore,” said Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican.

Others, though, sided strongly with Pruitt. “This is a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism that works against civility and respect,” said David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican, criticizing Democrats.

Joe Barton, a Republican representative from Texas, used his time to ask Pruitt if he had rented a “party jet.” Pruitt said he hadn’t. “Well, that’s good,” Barton said.

Oliver Milman is an environment reporter for Guardian US.  

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