During his third congressional hearing since late April, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt dodged criticism from senators and declined to take full responsibility for the growing number of scandals circling his office. Pruitt is now the subject of at least 14 federal investigations and numerous prominent Democrats, and a few Republicans, have called for his resignation.
Appearing before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday morning, Pruitt faced an onslaught of questions from lawmakers over a range of ethics and spending scandals. The meeting was purportedly intended to continue a discussion regarding the EPA’s 2019 budget but much of the two hour hearing focused instead on Pruitt’s actions as administrator.
Under scrutiny for a $50-a-night condo deal with the wife of an energy lobbyist, in addition to EPA pay raises and spending habits more broadly, Pruitt has denied responsibility and placed blame for the stumbles on his staff as well as his critics more broadly.
In a letter circulated on Tuesday ahead of the hearing, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins announced a 14th federal investigation involving Pruitt, this time examining the EPA administrator’s use of a private email accounts to conduct official business.
“I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on housing and security and travel,” began Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) as Wednesday morning’s hearing began on Capitol Hill. “Instead of seeing articles about efforts to return your agency to its core mission, I’m reading articles about your interactions with the industries that you regulate.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) was more aggressive, calling Pruitt’s leadership “disastrous” and slamming the official’s “disregard for ethics and disregard for taxpayer dollars” all while endangering the “air we breathe and the water we drink,” a reference to the Trump administration’s ongoing rollback of Obama-era environmental initiatives.
“What a silly reason you had to fly first class, because of a danger to you, unless you flew first class,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) chimed in, referencing Pruitt’s justification for taking expensive business class travel. “Nobody even knows who you are.”
But Pruitt declined to issue an apology or an explanation for the controversies dogging his office.
“There have been some decisions over the last 16 or so months that, as I look back on those decisions, I wouldn’t make the same decisions again,” he said, marking the closest the EPA administrator has come to acknowledging missteps during his tenure with the agency.
Following those remarks, Pruitt largely worked to steer clear of questions involving his various ethics and spending scandals, instead emphasizing the Trump administration’s goals and the success of the EPA in rolling back efforts like the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule.
Lawmakers nonetheless pressed Pruitt on a number of topics, not least the ongoing issue of whether the official behaved appropriately in conducting a sweetheart condo deal with the wife of J. Steven Hart, an energy lobbyist who served until recently as the chairman for Williams & Jensen. Pruitt paid some $6,100 in 2017 to Vicki Hart for occasional use of the condo, according to Bloomberg.
Pruitt has denied that Steven Hart had any official business before the EPA at that time. But in April, Williams & Jensen disclosed that Hart had in fact met with Pruitt during the duration of the condo deal to lobby on behalf of Smithfield Foods. In May, a letter revealed that Hart had in fact encouraged Pruitt to name certain candidates recommended by former Smithfield Foods Inc executive Dennis Treacy to the EPA Science Advisory Board.
That relationship played into questioning on Wednesday.
“Mr. Hart was a lobbyist and you rented a room from him and you had issues pending before your agency at the time that Hart’s firm was working on,” said Udall. “To me, that is just the exact swamp that President Trump was trying to get rid of and all of these questions I have been asking about is this swampy behavior that is going on here.”
Pruitt argued that the deal did not constitute a gift, insisting that it was in keeping with typical rates in Washington, D.C., notably an expensive rental market. He did not address whether the arrangement constituted a conflict of interest.
Prior to the controversy surrounding the condo deal, Pruitt was already facing questions from lawmakers. In October, he overhauled the EPA’s science advisory boards and replaced a number of scientists with industry insiders supportive of the Trump administration’s agenda, something environmental advocates say is illegal.
Moreover, a $43,000 soundproof phone booth installed last fall in the EPA head’s office was determined in mid-April to have violated spending laws. He also requested (and received) 24-hour security protection on his first day at the agency, costing more than $3 million. This would appear to contradict previous claims that the round-the-clock security was required due to threats Pruitt received as EPA Administrator.
Pruitt’s travel has also drawn scrutiny from lawmakers. In addition to flying first class due to alleged safety concerns, Pruitt has historically allowed lobbyists to help arrange his trips. Former Comcast lobbyist Richard Smotkin helped arrange a controversial trip to Morocco last December and Matthew C. Freedman, a former lobbyist for foreign governments who once served on President Trump’s transition team, played a central role in planning an Australia trip last year. The trip was ultimately canceled following Hurricane Harvey.
Attempts to push Pruitt for more information relating to the deluge of questions plaguing the EPA failed to draw much of a response from the administrator on Wednesday. That continues a trend: throughout his two prior appearances on Capitol Hill, Pruitt remained unresponsive to questions from Democratic lawmakers. During one back-and-forth in April, Pruitt declined to respond twice to the question “Are you the EPA administrator?” before finally answering in the affirmative.
Several Republican lawmakers offered Pruitt a more sympathetic ear on Wednesday. “You have taken a common-sense approach to the environmental regulatory process,” said Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) told the official. The subcommittee’s conservative members more broadly declined to pursue any aggressive line of questioning, even after Pruitt confirmed that one of his top aides did in fact assist his housing search last year, a potential violation of federal law.
Away from Capitol Hill, there was greater evidence of bipartisan consensus. Shortly after the hearing’s conclusion, the Environmental Integrity Project released a letter signed by more than 300 former EPA officials urging Elkins, the EPA watchdog head, to conclude the ongoing investigations and make the findings public swiftly.
“As former employees of EPA who served both Republican and Democratic Administrations, we are deeply concerned that the numerous scandals surrounding Administrator Pruitt have compromised the Agency’s mission and damaged the morale of its work force, while the evidence increasingly shows that millions of dollars are being wasted that could be better spent protecting public health and the environment,” read the letter.
It is unclear when the ongoing investigations into Pruitt’s conduct as EPA administrator might end.