EPA chief Pruitt to lawmakers: 'I have nothing to hide'

In Congress Thursday, Pruitt answered complaints that involve a $43,000 phone booth and a $90,000 trip to Italy.
By Susan McFarland  |  Updated April 26, 2018 at 4:53 PM
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April 26 (UPI) -- Scott Pruitt, the United States' top environmental officer, spent Thursday testifying in congressional hearings on Capitol Hill -- where he's facing tough questioning about ethics complaints.

Pruitt first testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday morning, which will be followed by an appearance in the House Appropriations Committee at 2 p.m.

Both are scheduled budget hearings, but Pruitt was grilled by lawmakers over complaints of excessive spending, a pricey soundproof phone booth in his office, pay raises for staffers and accepting lodging at a lobbyist's condominium.

In opening remarks at the energy committee hearing, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey said Pruitt has brought secrecy, conflicts of interest and scandal to the EPA.

"In any other administration, Republican or Democrat, you would be long gone by now," Pallone told Pruitt. "When we met in December, you pledged to be more transparent, you promised to do a better job providing technical assistance, sending witnesses to hearings and responding to congressional requests. But you have followed through on none of these promises."

Pallone said Pruitt has instead created "scandal after scandal."

"When confronted about them, you repeatedly failed to take responsibility for your actions," Pallone added. "Instead, you've blamed your staff, your security detail, your critics -- pretty much anyone but yourself."

Pruitt refuted the criticisms after first touting efforts made at the EPA during his time in the Trump administration.

"I recognize there have been very troubling media reports over the past few weeks. I, more than anyone, want to establish the hard facts and provide answers to questions surrounding these reports," Pruitt said. "Let me be very clear, I have nothing to hide."

Pruitt said the last 16 months have been a learning process, and that if Congress finds fault in his decision-making, he would correct the actions and ensure it does not happen again.

"Facts are facts, fiction is fiction and a lie doesn't become true just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper," Pruitt said. "Much of what has been targeted at me or my team has been half-truths or stories that have been so twisted they do not resemble reality."

Earlier this month, a federal watchdog said Pruitt's agency broke the law when it spent $43,000 on the soundproof phone booth without first notifying Congress.

The independent Government Accountability Office said the booth qualifies as a furnishing. Under federal law, the EPA is required to notify Senate and House appropriations committees in advance of any furnishing that costs taxpayers more than $5,000.

Pruitt is also accused of excessive spending on travel, staying at expensive hotels while traveling -- even if they exceeded allowable federal spending limits -- and telling staff to book flights on Delta Air Lines so he could accrue frequent flier mileage.

The EPA administrator has also been scrutinized over travel documents that show the agency spent close to $90,000 to send he and his staff to Italy last summer, for one day, to attend the G7 environmental summit.

Other controversies attached to Pruitt include reports of a $50-per-night Capitol Hill condo lease from the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist and raises to EPA aides without White House approval.

When asked, Pruitt said he knew about the raises, but not the amounts. When asked about $43,000 phone booth, he said he "would not have approved it."

"Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through. I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000, and If I had known about it ... I would have refused it," Pruitt said.

The EPA chief did not give a direct answer to Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo when she asked if he would reimburse taxpayers for his first-class travel -- but he did offer an analysis of the situation.

"I don't need any analysis. I know what airline tickets cost to fly across the country every week. ... You didn't answer my question," Eshoo replied. "I asked you if you're going to reimburse the taxpayers for the overage ... what are you going to do about it?"

Pruitt answered by saying the travel office and security team determine the specifics of his travel.

"I may be elected, but I'm not a fool. That's really a lousy answer from someone that has a high position in the federal government. I mean, this is not 'dodge question day,'" Eshoo said.

Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, has been criticized by Democrats, and some Republicans, over the complaints.

The White House said Wednesday it's evaluating the concerns.

"We expect the EPA administrator to answer for them," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Several Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats held a news conference before the hearing expressing their concerns about Pruitt's time in office.

Rep. Kathy Castor, a top Democrat on the committee, co-sponsored a resolution calling for Pruitt's resignation that included signatures from 170 congressional Democrats.

During the hearing, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., urged Pruitt to step down from his role as EPA administrator.

"I'm going to say it to you clearly and straight to you because I think you deserve that. But Mr. Pruitt, I think it's time that you resign," McCollum said.


10 a.m.: House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing

2 p.m.: House Appropriations Committee hearing

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