Senators press EPA’s Pruitt over lavish spending

Ellen Knickmeyer
Associated Press

Washington – Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt faced tough questioning Wednesday from senators about ethics investigations involving his travel spending, security precautions and large raises for young aides.

A leading GOP senator expressed concern that the allegations are overshadowing the Trump administration’s pro-business regulatory rollbacks.

“I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on security and on housing and on travel. I’m reading about your interactions with representatives of the industries that you regulate” instead of being asked about EPA policy actions, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who heads a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, told Pruitt at a hearing normally expected to focus on budget matters.

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, the subcommittee’s top Democrat, cited the Government Accountability Office’s finding in April that Pruitt’s purchase of a $43,000 private office booth for telephone calls broke federal law because the EPA failed to notify Congress in advance of an expenditure over $5,000.

Udall accused Pruitt of continuing to flout legal requirements to inform lawmakers about that and other big-ticket spending, and “treating your position of public trust as a golden ticket for extravagant travel and fine dining.”

Pruitt in April showed his ability to bat away ethics questions from Democrats when he appeared before two House panels. He responded to lawmakers’ challenges by shifting blame for questioned spending onto subordinates and pledging broadly to make changes.

There has been no slowdown in damaging headlines for Pruitt since then, including revelations from the EPA’s inspector general this week that Pruitt requested and received 24-hour security beginning his first day in office. That challenges Pruitt’s account that the round-the-clock security was a result of threats against him after taking office.

Two weeks ago, Pruitt announced the abrupt retirement of the head of his EPA security staff, whom Pruitt had blamed for much of his high security spending,

Despite the mounting investigations, President Donald Trump has said he supports Pruitt. Asked Friday if he still had confidence in the EPA chief, Trump told reporters, “I do.”

At one of the House hearings last month, Pruitt spoke broadly of taking responsibility for changes at his agency, and said he had “made changes” in his practice of first- and business-class travel. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not respond to a question Tuesday about whether Pruitt was now flying coach.

On the policy side, Pruitt has demonstrated his commitment to the administration’s cause of cutting regulation, especially rules that businesses call burdensome.

Last week, Pruitt announced changes in enforcement of the landmark Clean Air Act that critics said would give industries more say. On Monday, he announced a new “Office of Continuous Improvement” that he said would oversee speedy handling on permit requests, environmental violations and other matters.

A House committee, the EPA’s inspector general and the GAO all are investigating various allegations against Pruitt or his administration at EPA. The latest was announced Tuesday, when Democratic lawmakers released a letter from the inspector general initiating a investigation into Pruitt’s use of multiple email accounts, and the agency’s compliance with requests for records under the federal Freedom of Information Act.