Scott Pruitt on Capitol Hill: Highlights From Round 3

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday and fielded questions from lawmakers about allegations of ethical abuses and excessive spending.

The hearing, before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the environment, was Mr. Pruitt’s third congressional appearance in a month. It is the first opportunity, though, for senators to ask Mr. Pruitt about his first-class travel, his renting of a $50-a-night condo from the wife of a lobbyist with business before the agency and other issues that have become the subject of a series of investigations into Mr. Pruitt’s stewardship of the agency. His earlier appearances were in the House.

This week, a 12th investigation was announced, this one examining Mr. Pruitt’s use of E.P.A. email addresses that he did not disclose, lawmakers said on Tuesday.

Here are the highlights.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chairwoman of the subcommittee, noted in her opening remarks the heavy interest in Mr. Pruitt’s testimony, including the tightly packed hearing room.

“I would suggest that the size of the audience this morning is an indicator of substantial interest in this hearing,” she said. She told Mr. Pruitt she was concerned that his work at E.P.A. was being overshadowed by his ethics and spending concerns.

“I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on housing and security and travel,” she said. “Instead of seeing articles about efforts to return your agency to its core mission, I’m reading articles about your interactions with the industries that you regulate. Some of this undoubtedly is a result of the ‘gotcha’ age, but I do think there are legitimate questions that need to be answered.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the full appropriations committee, drew laughter when he questioned Mr. Pruitt’s claim that he was required by his security detail to fly first class because of threats to his life, saying “Nobody even knew who you were.”

“You have to fly first class? Oh come on,” Mr. Leahy said. He said Mr. Pruitt had become “a laughingstock.”

Senator Leahy told Mr. Pruitt he should be protecting the air and water rather than “big polluters” and “industry friends.”

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico said he had asked the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate whether the E.P.A. acted improperly when it appeared to mock Democrats on Twitter after the Senate voted to confirm the agency’s second-in-command, Andrew Wheeler.

The tweet, sent from the agency’s official account on April 13, said, “The Senate does its duty: Andrew Wheeler confirmed by Senate as deputy administrator of @EPA. The Democrats couldn’t block the confirmation of environmental policy expert and former EPA staffer under both a Republican and a Democrat president.”

Senator Udall has asked the accountability office to issue a legal opinion on whether the tweet violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda.

Senator Udall also noted that the G.A.O. had found that the E.P.A. violated federal laws when Mr. Pruitt’s office purchased and installed a $43,000 secure phone booth. “I have a lot of questions for you on this topic,” the senator said. “One month later you haven’t followed the law by reporting to congress or the president, your boss, how you let this happen and how you plan to fix it.”

He called on Mr. Pruitt to resign.

As Democrats continued to level accusations against Mr. Pruitt, Senator Murkowski asked the administrator, “Do you have anything you would like to add in response?” It was a move we’ve seen before: citing concern in an opening statement about Mr. Pruitt’s spending and ethical issues but then allowing Mr. Pruitt to issue an open-ended defense.

In response Mr. Pruitt denied, as he did before two different House panels last month, that he was to blame.

“I would not make the same decisions again,” he said, without detailing which ones. But, he noted, in some cases the E.P.A. was not organized in a way to prevent spending abuses. He specifically cited the secure phone booth, saying, “There were not proper controls early to ensure a legal review.”

Mr. Pruitt said he had introduced a new process afterward to ensure that any expenditure over $5,000 must be approved by the E.P.A. chief of staff and chief financial officer.

Senator Udall questioned Mr. Pruitt about reports that one of Mr. Pruitt’s aides had worked without pay to find housing for the administrator.

(E.P.A. aides have said that Millan Hupp, a scheduler for Mr. Pruitt, helped him find the Capitol Hill condominium that he ultimately rented for $50 a night from the wife of a lobbyist who had business before the agency.)

Mr. Pruitt acknowledged that Ms. Hupp was not paid for her work finding his housing but noted that she was a longtime family friend.

“It doesn’t cut it that they’re a friend,” Senator Udall said. “Did you pay them at the time?”

“All activity that was engaged with was on her personal time,” Mr. Pruitt responded.

Senator Udall: “And did you pay for it?”

Mr. Pruitt: “No, I did not.”

Senator Udall: “Then it’s a gift. It’s a violation of federal law.”

Federal law prohibits officials from accepting gifts from their subordinates that exceed $10.

Mr. Pruitt promised to provide copies of all emails and documents from himself and Ms. Hupp related to the housing search.

Senator Udall asked Mr. Pruitt if he supported the completion of the investigation by a special prosecutor, Robert S. Mueller III, into whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russians.

Mr. Pruitt, who has labored to remain in President Trump’s good graces, initially seemed to suggest that he was unaware of the investigation.

“As a former attorney general — and you and I share that responsibility, we didn’t serve at the same time — and you’re also a law enforcement official at the E.P.A., do you support special counsel Mueller completing his investigation?” Senator Udall asked.

Mr. Pruitt responded, “I’m sorry, ranking member Udall, investigation into? — ”

“A simple yes or no,” Senator Udall responded.

“I’m not familiar — I think the process is continuing,” Mr. Pruitt replied. He added: “I think as attorney general, it’s important for law enforcement, those investigators that serve prosecutors to be able to provide adequate information to them to make informed decisions about how they will proceed as a prosecutor. I did that as attorney general and I would trust that would happen at the federal level as well.”

Senator Udall shot back, “As you know, the right answer is yes.”

Senator Udall asked Mr. Pruitt if he had ever requested the use of lights and sirens on his E.P.A.-issued vehicle when he traveled for personal reasons. Several E.P.A. aides have said that Mr. Pruitt often wanted to use lights and sirens to expedite trips to airports and dinner, including at least one trip to Le Diplomate, a trendy French restaurant in Washington.

Mr. Pruitt said, “I don’t recall that happening.”

“There were policies in place that govern the use of lights,” Mr. Pruitt said. “Those policies were followed to the best of my knowledge.”

Senator Udall then entered into the record an email from Mr. Pruitt’s former head of security, Pasquale Perrotta, saying that the administrator had encouraged the use of lights.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, asked Mr. Pruitt about a New York Times report that the administrator had set up a legal defense fund to to defray the costs related to the investigations into his conduct.

Mr. Pruitt confirmed that the fund had been established. “I understand that’s being set up, yes,” he told Senator Van Hollen. “It’s been set up.”

Senator Van Hollen asked Mr. Pruitt to pledge that all donations to the fund would be made public, and that he would not accept donations from lobbyists or corporations that have business before the E.P.A.

“Absolutely,” Mr. Pruitt said.


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