WASHINGTON (CN) — Congress showered bipartisan support Wednesday on the nominee tapped to serve as watchdog of the EPA, an agency still marred by the scandal-ridden tenure of its former head, Scott Pruitt.
If confirmed, Sean O'Donnell will lead the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General. Insulated from EPA political leadership, the inspector general is tasked with investigating a range of wrongdoings within the agency including fraud, abuse and mismanagement.
O’Donnell, a trial attorney at the Justice Department, testified this morning before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that he is up to the job.
“I have always strived to lead investigations in a fair, objective and thorough manner, going where the facts lead no matter how uncomfortable the results,” the nominee said, reading from prepared remarks.
Chairman John Barrasso, R-N.Y., said O'Donnell brings a wealth of expertise as a civil servant to the “critically important position” — praise that was echoed by the committee’s top Democrat, Delaware Senator Thomas Carper.
Pledging his party’s support, Carper said Congress has seen “far too many breaches and abuses” at the EPA under the Trump administration.
“I only regret Mr. O’Donnell that your nomination did not come a year sooner,” the senator said.
Another Democrat, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, said the party is looking to O’Donnell to hold corrupt EPA officials accountable, after Pruitt was let off the hook.
The controversies that had embroiled Pruitt were many and varied, including renting a townhouse from the wife of an energy industry lobbyist for just $50 and a travel budget of more than $168,000 that included frequent trips to his home state.
Other violations bordered on the absurd, including $43,000 for a soundproof phone booth and use of EPA staff to ring the Trump hotel inquiring about buying a used mattress.
The acting EPA inspector general halted investigations after Pruitt stepped down, stating they were inconclusive.
Gillibrand slammed the practice of abandoning investigations.
“Will you commit to reversing this malpractice of abandonment and ensure that these investigations are completed even after the targets have resigned from their positions, in order to ensure full accountability?” Gillibrand asked.
O'Donnell committed to carry out investigations to the end.
“I have every intention of doggedly pursuing truth regardless of the availability of witnesses,” he said.
Republican Senator Mike Braun voiced concern over regulations known as Waters of the United States that the EPA had put in place under President Barack Obama. Describing the clean-water policy as “overreaching regulations” that infringed states’ rights, the Indiana lawmaker asked O'Donnell to commit to working closely with state authorities as inspector general.
In response, O'Donnell discussed his experience working cross-country with state officials when serving in the Criminal Division’s Bank Integrity Unit at the Justice Department.
“That collaborative effort really allowed us to make a better case because we were not just responsive to concerns inside the Beltway, but to concerns of the states,” he said.
O'Donnell did sidestep some questions from Democrat senators, saying he could not commit to call out recent policy changes in the EPA because he had not been privy to the discussions underpinning them.
Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., raised alarm over the Trump EPA’s end to surprise inspections.
O'Donnell initially said, as an independent office, it would be inappropriate for the OIG to intervene in agency policy. But he added: “It seems to me to be counterproductive to the Office of Inspector General.”
Duckworth, saying she found his answer reassuring, then turned to the drop in investigations since Trump took office.
“If confirmed I will pledge to meet with those auditors and understand the scope of their audits and, if appropriate, most certainly to expand it,” O'Donnell said.
The role O'Donnell is set to fill does not require an expertise in environmental policy but rather in auditing. Still, Senator Carper probed him on climate threats shaking the nation, including wildfires forcing evacuations across California.
The Democrat said he once lived in the Golden State and never encountered the hurricane-force winds now spreading the flames. “Do you think something is going on there?” Carper asked.
O'Donnell, prefacing he was no scientist, said: “It strikes me as terrifying what is happening there.”
The Senate committee that questioned O'Donnell this morning is now set to recommend his nomination to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.