Pruitt faces tough questions on Hill: Live updates

Pruitt faces tough questions on Hill: Live updates

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.

27 Nisan 2018 - 02:00

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.

Scott Pruitt's prep document of 'hot topics' ready ahead of congressional hearings

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.

Scott Pruitt expected to face ethics questions in front of Congress

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.

Scott Pruitt’s Moroccan calendar draws blanks

EPA chief recorded a single, one-hour meeting on day 1 of Morocco trip

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.

"PHOTO:Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images, FILE
President Donald Trump listens while Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks after announcing the the withdrawal from the Paris accord in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 1, 2017.

Today, Pruitt confirmed that he delegated that authority to Jackson.

In an interview that aired on Fox News earlier this month, Pruitt said he didn't know anything about the raises and that he has taken action to reverse the decision.

ABC News previously reported that two sources confirmed Pruitt pushed for the raises of two staffers but has not confirmed the amounts were paid to these employees.

EPA internal watchdog finds Pruitt’s top aide approved controversial raises

10:48AM – Protesters interrupt hearing

A small number of protesters wielding signs in the hearing room gallery disrupted the hearing.

Environmental subcommittee chairman Rep. John Shimkus stopped a line of hearing to address the protesters, warning them to remain quiet or get kicked out.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt previews new executive order

Protesters quieted when Capitol Police officers approached the gallery.

10:39AM –Members’ support of Pruitt falls along party lines

The Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), called Pruitt’s conduct in office “an embarrassment” when referring to reports that Pruitt has acted in retaliation against EPA officials’ who disagreed with his agenda or questioned the legitimacy of threats against the Administrator.

"PHOTO:Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt arrives to the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 26, 2018.

In response to Rep. Pallone’s line of questioning, Pruitt said he did not recall taking retaliatory action against aides.

But the committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), defended Pruitt, saying that he's a victim of "Washington politics," and Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) scolded his Democratic colleagues for "grandstanding" and engaging in “McCarthyism” by attacking the Administrator over news reports.

Top government ethics official writes EPA on Pruitt questions

10:20 AM – Administrator Pruitt gives opening statement: “I have nothing to hide”

Administrator Pruitt addressed the slew of media reports directed at his conduct as agency chief in opening remarks to the committee.

“I recognize there have been very troubling media reports over the last few weeks,” Pruitt said, deviating from the prepared remarks released by the Committee on Wednesday. “I promise you that I, more than anyone, want to address the questions surrounding these reports.”

Pruitt called the media reports an attack on the administration and an effort to derail the agency’s agenda.

“A lie doesn’t become truth just because it’s on the front page of the newspaper,” Pruitt said.

10:00 AM - Pruitt arrives for first hearing with House panel

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has arrived on the Hill and taken his seat at the Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. Pruitt was greeted by a handful of protesters as he hopped out of his car and gaited into the hearing room.

In his opening statements, the environmental subcommittee chairman Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., told Pruitt that he’s “generally pleased” with the Administrator’s work at EPA and that news reports of his misconduct are “a distraction, but one this committee cannot ignore.”

But Rep. Paul Tonko, a New York Democrat, struck a different tone, calling on the committee to hold Pruitt accountable today.

"In almost all cases the more we have learned, the worse they get," Rep. Tonko said about reports of wasteful spending and retaliation against employees at EPA.



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