WASHINGTON (CN) – Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was met with ridicule, intense questioning and even a handful of silent protesters on Capitol Hill Wednesday, as lawmakers pressed for answers on multiple ethics investigations currently plaguing him.
Pruitt’s appearance, this time before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, was the third time the former Oklahoma attorney general has appeared before Congress in the last month.
Officially, the latest session was scheduled to discuss the EPA’s FY2019 budget, but a letter released Tuesday by the EPA’S inspector general announcing another investigation into Pruitt’s activities – this time for his “nonpublic” email use – threw the agenda off course.
According to the inspector general, Pruitt maintains at least three email accounts that are flagged as “administrative use.” While other administrators have used “nonpublic” email accounts like this before, under federal law communications carried out through those email accounts must be retained for the federal record.
The latest investigation is looking into whether those records have been properly kept.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., had sharp critiques of the agency’s proposed budget calling it “reckless and unrealistic” and proof that the administrator has “total contempt … for bedrock environmental safeguards, the work of the EPA and the people who monitor and protect and conserve our environment.”
“You attack the core mission of the EPA and you attack human health,” Leahy said.
The senior ranking democrat’s words were even sharper when he addressed allegations that Pruitt abused taxpayer funds by requiring first class travel for himself and his round-the-clock security detail after his appointment by President Donald Trump.
“You have to fly first class? Come on,” Leahy said. “Nobody knows who you are.”
“Forget about your own ego and your first class travel and your special phone booths and all these things that just make you a laughing stock, and your agency a laughing stock,” Leahy said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has often refrained from questioning Pruitt’s spending habits during public hearings and instead focused on agency accomplishments and activities, admitted Wednesday that she felt the multiple probes were overshadowing the EPA’s purpose.
“I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on housing, security and travel. Instead of seeing articles about efforts to return your agency to its core mission,” Murkowski said. “I’m reading articles about your interactions with industries that you regulate. Some of this is undoubtedly the result of the ‘gotcha’ age, but I do think there are legitimate questions that need to be answered,”
In addition to the investigation of his email use launched Tuesday; first class travel, 24/7 security detail, the purchase of a $43,000 private security booth, and a $50 per night sweetheart condo lease from the wife of an energy industry lobbyist, Pruitt will soon face another probe, according to Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
The senator said Wednesday he has requested the Government Accountability Office launch a probe into the EPA’s social media usage. Udall said it appears Pruitt “mocked” Senate Democrats on Twitter after they voted to confirm his deputy Andrew Wheeler. a violation of the Hatch Act.
The EPA’s April 13 tweet, Udall said, violated the Hatch Act which prohibits political propaganda from federal officials. It stated: “The Senate does its duty: Andrew Wheeler confirmed by senate as deputy administrator of EPA. The Democrats couldn’t block the confirmation of environmental policy expert and former EPA staffer under both a Republican and a Democrat president.”
Pruitt hedged on most questions posed by lawmakers, including one posed by Sen. Udall on whether or not the administrator explicitly requested the use of lights and sirens on agency vehicles while travelling.
“I don’t recall,” Pruitt said. “There were polices in place that govern the use of lights and we followed them to the best of my knowledge.”
Pruitt’s statement was undercut when Udall held up a February 2017 email from the administrator’s former head of security, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta. In it Perrotta writes, “[By the way] – Administrator encourages the use [of sirens and lights.]”
The administrator also confirmed he has established a legal defense fund to address the multiple inquiries he faces. He assured lawmakers he would not accept anonymous donations to the fund nor donations from lobbyists or corporations that have business before the EPA, per the White House Office of Legal Counsel rules.
“Whatever [determinations] with the GAO or the White House Office of Legal Counsel yields, is what we will follow,” Pruitt said.
Sen. Udall also asked Pruitt for his thoughts on another investigation: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the 2016 election.
“Do you support [Mueller] completing his investigation? A simple yes or no, please” Udall said.
Pruitt appeared confused, asking Udall which investigation he meant, before saying he believed “the process is continuing.”
“I think as attorney general, it’s important for law enforcement, those investigators that serve prosecutors to be able to provide adequate information to them to make informed decisions about how they will proceed as prosecutor. I did that as attorney general and I would trust that will happen at a federal level as well,” Pruitt said.