Political News

Democrats Sharpen Focus as Pruitt Testifies Again on Capitol Hill

Posted May 16, 2018 4:12 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told a Senate panel Wednesday that one of his employees had worked without pay on her personal time to find him a place to live, a service that Democrats said amounted to a violation of federal law.

He also confirmed that he had established a legal-defense fund to defray the costs of defending himself against 12 federal investigations into his spending and management decisions.

The acknowledgments came amid increasing allegations of legal and ethical misconduct by Pruitt that have led some lawmakers, including in his own party, to call for his resignation. They were part of testimony before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the environment, the third congressional hearing Pruitt has faced in less than a month.

While President Donald Trump has said he continues to support his embattled EPA chief, senior members of the White House staff have opened a renewed push to persuade their boss to fire Pruitt.

Democrats said Wednesday that Pruitt’s testimony appeared to have opened up new lines of legal scrutiny. They also accused Pruitt of lying when he asserted that he had never requested that his security detail use lights and sirens to speed through Washington on non-urgent trips, producing a document that they said proved he had.

In the case of the housing search, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, prodded Pruitt to acknowledge that one of his aides, Millan Hupp, had worked without pay to find a place for her boss to live when he came to Washington. Pruitt ultimately rented a condo on Capitol Hill for $50 a night from Vicki Hart, whose husband, Stephen J. Hart, was a lobbyist with business before the agency.

Pruitt acknowledged that Hupp had conducted the search on his behalf and had not been paid but noted that she was a longtime family friend.

“It doesn’t cut it that they’re a friend,” Udall said. “Did you pay them at the time?”

“No, I did not,” Pruitt responded.

“Then it’s a gift,” Udall said. “It’s a violation of federal law.”

Officials are prohibited by law from accepting gifts from their subordinates that exceed $10.

Pruitt promised to provide copies of all emails and documents from himself and Hupp related to the housing search.

Republicans, as they have in previous hearings with Pruitt, generally gave the administrator an easy ride. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the subcommittee, initially rebuked the EPA chief.

“I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on housing and security and travel,” she said. “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.”

But Murkowski did not press Pruitt about the allegations. When Democrats did, she asked him, “Do you have anything you would like to add in response?” The move mirrored those of Republicans in earlier hearings with Pruitt: citing concern about allegations of misconduct but then allowing the administrator to issue an open-ended and unchallenged defense.

In response Pruitt denied, as he has before, that he was to blame.

“I would not make the same decisions again,” he said, without detailing which ones. But, he said, in some cases the EPA was not organized in a way to prevent spending abuses. He specifically cited his office’s installation of a secure phone booth, saying, “There were not proper controls early to ensure a legal review.”

The installation of the phone booth, at a cost of $43,000, was later found to have violated federal law.

Pruitt said he had introduced a new process after the episode to ensure that any expenditure over $5,000 would be approved by the EPA chief of staff and chief financial officer.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., asked Pruitt about a New York Times report that the administrator had set up a legal-defense fund to defray the costs related to the investigations into his conduct. Pruitt confirmed that the fund had been established, and Van Hollen asked Pruitt to pledge that all donations to the fund would be made public, and that he would not accept donations from lobbyists or corporations that have business before the EPA.

“Absolutely,” Pruitt said. Democrats also pressed Pruitt on a report by the EPA’s inspector general that stated he had requested 24-hour protection from his first day in office, a costly service not extended to any of his predecessors. “Did you personally, on your first day, ask for 24/7 protection for yourself?” Udall asked.

“Personally, on the first day, the 24/7 had been determined by the criminal enforcement office to provide,” Pruitt said. “I did not direct that on the first day.”

“So your answer is no,” Udall said.

“My answer is I did not direct that on the first day,” Pruitt responded.

“Well all the documents dispute that,” Udall said.

Udall also asked Pruitt if he had ever requested the use of lights and sirens on his EPA-issued vehicle when he traveled for personal reasons. Several EPA aides have said that Pruitt wanted to use lights and sirens to expedite trips to airports and dinner, including at least one trip to Le Diplomate, a Washington restaurant.

Pruitt said, “I don’t recall that happening.”

Udall then entered into the record an email from Pruitt’s former head of security, Pasquale Perrotta, saying that the administrator had encouraged the use of lights.