Amid an onslaught of news stories about his conduct as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt faced questions Thursday from members of Congress eager to pry into allegations of unethical behavior and abuse of office.
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During the ongoing hearings, Pruitt faced tough questions about changes in environmental regulatory policy. He also deflected accusations of impropriety and also sought to shift blame onto staffers for malfeasances under his watch.
A document called “hot topics” indicated that Pruitt would rebut questions about his travel habits, questionable raises for close aides and an ABC News report about Pruitt’s housing agreement, according to a source with direct knowledge who described it to ABC News.
Pruitt's opening statement focused on the agency’s legislative priorities and budget, which are the official subject of the hearings.
Pruitt has addressed some of the allegations and ongoing investigations in a Fox News interview that aired earlier this month but has not yet answered questions about new reports related to claims that he retaliated against EPA employees that expressed concerns about his spending at the agency and claims from an EPA whistleblower described in a letter from Democrats that his security detail exaggerated threats against him to justify increased spending and first-class flights.
Pruitt appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday morning and then before a House Appropriations subcommittee in the afternoon.
2:58 PM - Pruitt defends natural gas pitch on pricey Morocco visit
A member of the House Appropriations subcommittee raised questions about one of Pruitt’ trips abroad, a recent visit to Morocco where Pruitt promoted natural gas imports – typically a responsibility within the Energy Department’s purview.
“I can’t for the life of me imagine why an EPA Administrator would be over there promoting energy sales,” Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said, accusing Pruitt of stepping outside of his lane as EPA administrator.
Pruitt defended the trip as a preliminary meeting for the U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement where “there was a lot of reference to LNG” – shorthand for liquefied natural gas – “only because the ambassador asked me to share that with individuals while I was in country.” It wasn’t immediately clear which ambassador Pruitt was referring to.
ABC News has previously reported that Pruitt recorded only one meeting on the first day of the costly trip to the Saharan country.
An initial agenda for the trip reviewed by ABC News included four pages redacted.
2:27 PM – Pruitt, congresswoman spar over death threats, security costs
Scott Pruitt is back answering more questions about the EPA’s budget and a slew of issues related to his conduct in office – this afternoon before a House Appropriations subcommittee.
The hearing began much in the same way as the Energy and Commerce subcommittee’s earlier hearing ended, with Democratic ranking member Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., holding Pruitt’s feet to the fire about security and travel expenditures.
As Pruitt read aloud threats made against him – referring to a document he says was provided to him by the EPA’s inspector general – in an effort to justify higher security costs, McCollum pushed back, telling Pruitt that “we all receive death threats on our Facebook page.”
McCollum revealed that the committee reached out to the EPA’s inspector general ahead of today’s hearing and said the inspector general, Arthur Elkins, “disputed” some of Pruitt’s claims.
"We asked IG Elkins, and he disputed your claim," McCollum said.
Pruitt insisted the document was from the inspector general, and McCollum asked that the document be submitted to the hearing’s official record.
When ABC News reached out to the inspector general’s office for clarity on their debate, a spokesperson confirmed Rep. McCollum’s assertion that Elkins disputed Pruitt’s claim.
“The memo that [Pruitt] read from was not from Inspector General Elkins,” a spokesperson for the inspector general said, adding, “It was an internal memo from Assistant IG for Investigations Patrick Sullivan. It was leaked without authorization. It will be released in the near future as part of an OIG FOIA response.”
1:45 PM – Democrats pound Pruitt, Republicans on ethics issues as first hearing comes to a close
After nearly four hours of questioning, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing ended the way it began, with exasperated Democratic lawmakers peppering Pruitt with questions about reports of unethical behavior and lavish spending – and criticizing Republicans on the panel for refraining from doing so.
Asked whether he has any remorse for what Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., called “excessive spending,” Pruitt said he’s already made changes, citing his decision to fly in coach after reports emerged that Pruitt flew in first class.
“This is not a dodge question day… I don’t really find you forthcoming,” Eshoo added.
Vermont Democrat Peter Welch again questioned Pruitt about the purchase of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth, pointing to the two secure spaces already within the EPA to communicate sensitive information.
Pruitt reiterated that his staff coordinated purchase of the secure phone booth, adding that the two other secure spaces are “not that close to my office.”
With regard to his chain of command and delegating the phone booth purchase to staff, Pruitt conceded that “in this instance, the process failed.”
In the waning moments of the hearing, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., expressed disappointment in her Republican colleagues for letting Pruitt “off the hook” by avoiding questions about his conduct.
“It’s embarrassing that most of the republicans refuse to take this committee’s oversight responsibility seriously,” Castor said.
12:00PM – Pruitt: Career EPA officials coordinated $43,000 phone booth without my knowledge
Pruitt shifted blame onto “career EPA officials” for erecting a private phone booth in the Administrator’s office that cost over $43,000.
“I did not have access to secure communications, I gave directions to my staff to address that,” Pruitt said, adding that staffers had “made expenditures that I did not approve.”
The EPA spent more than $43,000 to install a "secure phone booth" in Pruitt's office last year, according to agency documents obtained by American Oversight, a watchdog group founded by former Obama administration officials.
Pruitt confirmed that the phone booth was not certified as a SCIF – a facility used for secure communications to discuss classified information. The EPA already two SCIFs elsewhere in its headquarters, according to the GAO report.
Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office found that the EPA violated federal law by failing to notify Congress before spending more than $5,000 on the phone booth.
In a letter to the GAO, the EPA also argued that spending on the booth did not need to comply with with the appropriations law because it was not an “aesthetic improvement,” but an expense to facilitate agency business. A decision by EPA’s general counsel disagreed with that finding, saying that it was a functional improvement and not just aesthetic.
Pruitt said the EPA is investigating that matter internally.
11:00AM – Pruitt seeks to clarify big raises for aides
Pruitt told the committee that he gave a top aide permission to give at least two EPA employees big raises, deviating from how he characterized authorization for these raises in the past.
A report from the EPA’s internal watchdog found that it was Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, who signed off on raises for 30-year-old senior legal counsel Sarah Greenwalt and 26-year-old scheduling director Millian Hupp under a little-known provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act.