Pruitt diverts blame in House hearing

EPA chief answers lawmakers’ questions on pricey trips, security spending

Posted: April 27, 2018 at 3:09 a.m.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt pauses while speaking as he testifies before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2018.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt pauses while speaking as he testifies before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2018.

WASHINGTON -- Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, whose performance has been dogged by ethical concerns, took heat from lawmakers Thursday over his profligate spending and lobbyist ties and tried to divert responsibility to underlings.

The EPA administrator said "twisted" allegations against him were meant to undermine the administration's anti-regulatory agenda, and he denied knowing details of some of the extraordinary spending done on his behalf at the agency.

The public grilling at back-to-back House hearings, called formally to consider EPA's budget, came as support has appeared to erode for Pruitt among fellow Republicans after revelations about unusual security spending, first-class flights, a sweetheart condo lease and more. Even Republicans who heartily support Pruitt's policy agenda said his apparent lapses had to be scrutinized.

Democrats excoriated him.

"You are unfit to hold public office, and you are undeserving of the public trust," said Rep. Frank Pallone, of New Jersey, the Energy and Commerce Committee's top Democrat, adding that in any other White House, he would "be long gone."

Although some Republicans rallied around Pruitt, reviews were mixed. Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, chairman of the first panel that questioned Pruitt, said afterward that the EPA chief was "a little vague," adding, "It's never a good idea to blame your staff in public."

Asked if Pruitt should resign, he said that's not his call and suggested that's up to President Donald Trump.

Pruitt gave clipped, bureaucratic answers to questions on the many financial allegations against him, relaxing when Republicans on the panel gave him openings to expand on his policy steps at EPA.

Mocking Pruitt's opponents, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said that as far as the EPA chief's critics were concerned, "I think the greatest sin you've done is you've actually done what President Trump ran on."

Trump has stood by his EPA chief, but White House officials have conceded privately that Pruitt's job is in serious jeopardy.

Pruitt has faced a steady trickle of revelations involving pricey trips in first-class seats and unusual security spending, including a $43,000 soundproof booth for making private phone calls. He also demanded 24-hour-a-day protection by armed officers, resulting in a 20-member security detail that blew through overtime budgets and racked up expenses approaching $3 million.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, mounted a defense as he focused on some of those controversies.

"You're not the first person to be the victim, for lack of a better term, of Washington politics," Barton told him. Referring to the fact that the administrator frequently traveled in first class during his first year at EPA, Barton inquired, "Is it illegal to fly first class?"

"It may look bad, but it's not illegal," Barton said later.

The EPA chief acknowledged under questioning that he, in fact, knew something about huge pay raises given to two women on his staff -- at least one of them a friend -- after insisting weeks ago that he didn't approve the raises and didn't know who did. After that initial denial, documents showed EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson signed off on the raises and indicated he had Pruitt's consent.

Pruitt said Thursday that he had delegated authority to Jackson to give the raises but didn't know the exact amounts. Senior legal counsel Sarah Greenwalt received a raise of more than $66,000, bringing her salary to $164,200, and scheduling director Millian Hupp saw her salary jump from $48,000 to $114,590.

As he has in the past, Pruitt sought to deflect questions about any missteps by blaming subordinates.

On the communications booth, he said, "I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000, and if I had known about it, Congressman, I would not have approved it."

On flying first class at taxpayer expense: "Security decisions at the agency are made by law enforcement personnel, and I have heeded their counsel."

And on the pay raises to the two women, Pruitt said, "I was not aware of the amount provided or the process that was used in providing that."

Pruitt's troubles began last month, after ABC News first reported that he had leased a Capitol Hill condo last year for just $50 a night that was co-owned by the wife of a veteran fossil fuels lobbyist whose firm had sought regulatory rollbacks from EPA.

Both Pruitt and the lobbyist, Steven Hart, denied he had conducted any recent business with EPA. But Hart was forced to admit last week that he had met with Pruitt at EPA headquarters last summer after his firm, Williams & Jensen, revealed he had lobbied the agency on a required federal disclosure form.

Pruitt acknowledged Thursday that Hupp helped him find accommodations in the capital but said her search apparently did not cost taxpayers. "I'm not aware of any government time being used," he said. "She is a friend."

Information for this article was contributed by Michael Biesecker and Ellen Knickmeyer of The Associated Press and by Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.

A Section on 04/27/2018