Scott Pruitt testifies during his confirmation hearing. Aaron P. Bernstein/Stringer/GettyImages
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, testifies during his confirmation hearing.

Pruitt defends actions in front of House committee

EPA administrator says the controversies surrounding him are “half truths, or, at best, stories that are so twisted they do not represent reality.”

by Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter

EPA chief Scott Pruitt insisted he had "nothing to hide" as he endured withering criticism in his first public hearing since a cascade of revelations about an unorthodox condo rental, a $43,000 secure phone booth and pricey travel.

“Pruitt has used this office as nothing more than an opportunity to enrich himself and his corporate friends,” Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, said at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. “Every indication we have is that you really should resign.” 

Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California, ticked through an array of allegations before asking Pruitt: "Do you have any remorse?" 

The House hearing -- the first of two focused on the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget Thursday -- was dominated by discussion of the many controversies surrounding Pruitt, the agency’s administrator. 

Pruitt, 49, has drawn fire -- and at least nine formal investigations -- for frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma, questionable spending decisions at the EPA, raises given to two top aides over White House objections, and allegations that some employees were sidelined after questioning his decisions.

Pruitt cast aside the controversies as “a distraction to our agenda,” and called them “half truths, or, at best, stories that are so twisted they do not represent reality.”

“Those who attack the EPA and attack me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president’s agenda and undermine this administration’s priorities,” Pruitt said. “I’m simply not going to allow that to happen.”

Pruitt said he relished the opportunity to defend his record. “I have nothing to hide with how I ran the agency over the past 16 months,” he said. 

Pruitt downplayed his role in certain agency matters, repeating an assertion that he was not aware of the amount of pay raises granted under an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to two top aides over White House objections. Documents previously released by the EPA’s internal watchdog show the agency’s Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson signed forms approving the move. "There was delegation given in my authority," Pruitt said, adding that he "was not aware of the bypassing that was going on." 

Pruitt also distanced himself from the $43,000 installation of a soundproof phone booth in his office, suggesting costs had ballooned under the oversight of career staff at the EPA. "If I had known about it, I would not have approved it," he said.

"Those were all career individuals that were part of that process," Pruitt said.

Representative Leonard Lance, a Republican from New Jersey, said he was concerned about allegations of overspending, including the phone booth acquisition, especially since the EPA building already has a sensitive compartment information facility where classified information can be shared. "Why did we need to spend taxpayer funds" on another, he asked.

Some -- but not all -- Republicans provided a friendlier welcome, with several extolling Pruitt’s performance at the EPA, at least one apologizing for colleagues’ "abrasive" questions and two casting the deluge of accusations against the administrator as McCarthyism.

"It appears that it has become a political blood sport to try and destroy anybody with the Trump administration," observed Representative Gregg Harper, a Republican from Mississippi.

Representative David McKinley, a Republican from West Virginia, said Pruitt was the target of a “classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism that we’re seeing too often here in Washington.” Some lawmakers “just can’t resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand,” McKinley said. 

Pruitt sought to placate angry lawmakers Thursday, but he really may be playing for a more powerful audience, as he tries to persuade top White House officials -- and President Donald Trump -- that he should keep his job. White House officials have cautioned Republican lawmakers and other conservative allies to temper their defense of Pruitt, in a sign administration support for the EPA chief may be waning.

Earlier Thursday, some Democratic lawmakers and environmental activists held a rally to highlight the allegations against Pruitt and call for his ouster. Outside the Rayburn House office building, activists wearing “Fire Pruitt” t-shirts handed out fliers. Members of the Mom’s Clean Air Task Force, an environmental advocacy group, waited in a long line to enter the hearing room.

--With assistance from Erik Wasson and Christopher Flavelle.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Washington at [email protected]; Ari Natter in Washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at [email protected]

Elizabeth Wasserman

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P

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