WASHINGTON (CN) – Members of a House panel on Thursday assailed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt for the ethics and spending scandals that have prompted bipartisan calls for his ouster.
The public grilling by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the Environment came as support has eroded for Pruitt among fellow Republicans after a nearly month-long hammering of negative headlines about outsized security spending, first-class flights and a sweetheart condo lease.
He will appear before the House Appropriations subcommittee Thursday afternoon.
Though both of the meetings were slated as routine oversight hearings for the EPA’s budget, Pruitt was grilled nonstop by the first of the two House panels.
On the defensive, Pruitt blamed his bad press on “half-truths” and “twisted” allegations were an effort to undermine the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory agenda.
“I, more than anyone, want to establish hard facts. I have nothing to hide, I am not afraid to admit there has been a learning process. When Congress finds fault in our decision making, I want to correct that,” Pruitt said. “As administrator, the responsibility of identifying and making changes rests with me and no one else. Facts are facts and fiction is fiction.”
The stories about him he said, were “so twisted” they failed to “represent reality.”
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and several other Republicans on the committee lauded Pruitt’s performance at the agency and agreed that reports of misconduct were a tool of distraction.
Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko of New York and Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey spoke bluntly to the administrator as they pushed him for answers on raises given to his aide Sarah Greenwalt.
Though Pruitt told the committee he alone was responsible for the final decisions at the agency; when it came to raises, the administrator claimed he was unaware of the amount given to Greenwalt.
The decision to increase her pay was the result “delegation to an aide,” he explained.
This was clarified in the Inspector General report on the salary increases for his aides, he noted.
Pruitt also denied misconduct against employees who have accused him of retaliation after questioning his spending habits.
“Has it always been your practice to fire people who disagree with you?” Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, asked.
Pruitt denied the allegation, saying he couldn’t recall a conversation with an employee that would warrant the accusation.
Rep. Pallone also made a direct call for Pruitt’s removal saying the “level of secrecy, conflicts of interest and scandal at the EPA” rendered the former Oklahoma attorney general ill-equipped for the job.
“You are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust. I don’t say this because I particularly dislike you or hold you in ill repute but every indication we have is you really should resign and you are undeserving of the public trust,” Rep. Pallone said.
As of Thursday, 140 House Democrats have signed a resolution expressing “no confidence” in Pruitt. Only four Republican House members have joined the call.
The gallery of guests at the hearing included a handful of protestors donning green shirts with “Impeach Pruitt” emblazoned across the chest.
A few stood behind the administrator as he testified but were asked to remain quiet or face removal. Other protestors carrying posters that said “Mr. Corruption” also sat behind Pruitt as he testified.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, offered some consolation to the administrator saying the criticism Pruitt faced was “shameful” and typical of “Washington politics.”
“This hearing today has turned into a personal attack hearing and it is a shameful attempt to denigrate the work that’s being done at the EPA,” Rep. Johnson said.
Pruitt’s ability to provide yes and no answers to questions was not limited to ethics violations allegations.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, pressed Pruitt for clarity around the EPA’s decision in January to revise the “once in always in” policy which governs what sources are subject to regulations for air pollution under section 112 of the Clean Air Act.
In 1995 the “once in always in” policy issued by the EPA determined which sources had the potential to pollute the air above a certain threshold. Once a polluter was identified this way, that source was considered “always in” and expected to meet certain standards.
But when Pruitt revoked the memo in January, Dingell asked if a full range of studies on the impact of the repealed policy were completed.
“Did you study the impact revoking the rule might have on babies, pregnant women, seniors or those with chronic health problems, minority or low income communities?”
Pruitt said he was unaware of any studies were conducted.
When reached for comment Thursday, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said the agency did not find it necessary to conduct any such analysis prior to issuing the Major MACT to Area Source memo revision because “our position is that the original 1995 policy was per se unlawful under the plain language of the Clean Air Act.
“Accordingly, even if – and this is speaking solely for the sake of argument, as it isn’t true – the OI/AI policy did afford some measure of environmental protection that has now been removed, the policy itself was unlawful and EPA was always without authority to implement/impose it. That’s the basis for its rescission,” Bowman said.
Further, Bowman told Courthouse News analysis of the rule is a “responsible exercise” on the agency’s part that “may very well reveal the overall benefits of the change of policy direction.”
Questions over Pruitt’s recent proposal to change decades-old policy at the EPA determining how scientific data is used by the agency also dominated the hearing.
The rule would only allow the EPA to consider studies where underlying data is made public but Pruitt argued that the proposed rule isn’t that ominous.
“Scientific transparency shouldn’t apply to certain studies, but all. Many members of this committee would be concerned in the American Petroleum Institute did a study and didn’t provide [all of] the information on that study or if they didn’t provide the data. There would be tremendous concerns,” Pruitt said.
Yogin Kothari, a senior representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists Washington, D.C. branch, told Courthouse News this, as well as the rest of Pruitt’s testimony, was based on a “dishonest” premise.
“He has dodged or misled committee members in responses to questions about his actions to rollback science-based safeguards and failed to commit to uphold EPA’s mission of protecting the public and environment,” Kothari said. His proposal would prevent the agency from using the best science to protect the public from toxic air and unsafe chemicals. His proposal does nothing to improve transparency but goes the extra mile to let major polluters off the hook.”