EPA's Pruitt grilled over management, ethics concerns

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt faced tough questions from lawmakers about questionable expenditures and management style.

Editorial credit: bakdc / Shutterstock.com Royalty-free stock photo ID: 613021361 WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 2017: EPA headquarters sign at entrance on Constitution Ave. US Environmental Protections Agency,

Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: bakdc / Shutterstock.com )

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt faced tough questions from lawmakers about questionable expenditures and management style.

Most of the inquiries surrounded allegations of administrator Pruitt's excessive spending, conflicts of interest and retaliations against whistleblowers came from Democrats, while Republicans largely chose to focus on praising his deregulation efforts.

Outside of partisan disputes, Pruitt's actions have been and are currently the subject in several investigations conducted by the agency's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office.

During an April 26 House Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee hearing, two lawmakers in particular drilled in on the administrator's management style.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member of the full committee, questioned Pruitt over reports that EPA officials had been reassigned and retaliated against for pushing back against his spending habits and management style, charges Pruitt denied.

"I'm very concerned by this troubling pattern of retaliation that's not only potentially illegal, but is also creating a hostile environment that’s expediting the exodus of valuable expertise from the EPA," said Pallone, who added Pruitt was "unfit for office" and called for his resignation.

"There's really no factual connection whatsoever in the employment status of those individuals and any counsel regarding spending," Pruitt told lawmakers.

Earlier in April, Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wrote Pruitt and the White House about a series of ethical questions raised by Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations at EPA, Kevin Chmielewski.

Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) added he found Pruitt’s answers "lacking or insufficient."

"You've not demonstrated the requisite degree of good judgment required of an appointed executive branch official on some of these spending items," he said.

However, Pruitt claimed the reports on excessive spending, which include first-class and luxury travel, a 20-person security detail and a $43,000 soundproof phone booth installed in his office,

were "half-truths or at best stories that have been so twisted they do not resemble reality."

"Facts are facts, and fiction is fiction, and a lie doesn’t become truth just because it appears on the front page of a newspaper," he said.

Specifically about his travel and security decisions, Pruitt said, "these decisions about security detail, who attends and what they do to provide protection happened due to law enforcement recommendations, and that’s what I followed," adding that he now flies coach on business trips.

As for the allegations that did not only appear in a newspaper, such as the IG finding EPA gave steep salary increases to aides, to which the White House objected, and GAO’s determination the $43,000 phone booth violated federal law, Pruitt said he was unaware of those until after the fact.

Questioned about the phone booth, the cost of which exceeded the $5,000 furnishing limit provided by law, Pruitt said,

"I gave a simple instruction to my leadership team to address secure communications in the office, and then a process began," he said.

Lawmakers also brought up other ethics concerns — namely perceived conflicts of interest, lack of transparency surrounding his daily schedule, the shift in focus away from science at the agency and a controversial rental agreement.

On these fronts, Pruitt again denied wrongdoing.

"Let me be very clear, I have nothing to hide as it relates to how I've run the agency over the past 16 months," he said, but acknowledged, "I'm not afraid to admit there’s been a learning process."