Democrats slammed Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt Wednesday over new and persisting questions about his conduct and spending since taking over at the agency, including his costly 24-hour security detail and rental arrangement in a Capitol Hill townhouse connected to lobbyists.
Pruitt was asked about recent reports about his actions at the agency in a hearing before a Senate appropriations subcommittee. He is already under multiple investigations into the cost of his security detail, travel, pay raises for aides, alleged retaliation against whistleblowers, and his time renting a condo in a Capitol Hill townhouse connected to lobbyists.
More than 300 former EPA officials wrote to the EPA's inspector general on Wednesday calling for him to expedite the investigations because they are concerned the scandals have "compromised the agency's mission," according to a copy of the letter released by the Environmental Integrity Project.
The full Senate Appropriations Committee's Ranking Member, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., quoted a constituent who said Pruitt’s explanation for flying in first class as a security precaution a "silly reason.”
"Incidentally a Vermonter said "what a silly reason you had to fly first class because of a danger to you unless you flew first class. He said nobody even knows who you are and you go in there where somebody might criticize you," Leahy said.
More than half of the committee members did not attend the hearing but that did not stop Democrats like the subcommittee's ranking member Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., from lamenting the constant barrage of scandals at the agency and launching strongly-worded attacks on Pruitt’s conduct.
"Your tenure at the EPA is a betrayal of the American people,” Udall told Pruitt.
Pruitt confirmed Wednesday that a legal defense fund has been set up on his behalf and said that he will follow the proper procedures for the fund, including not accepting money from industries that have business before the EPA.
In response to the criticism of his spending and other decisions at the agency, Pruitt repeated some of the defense he gave in testimony before House committees last month.
Pruitt deflected some of his spending decisions as a result of problems with the process at EPA, adding that he has instituted a new rule requiring additional approval for expenditures more than $5,000.
"There have been some decisions over the last 16 or so months that, as I look back on those decisions, I wouldn't make the same decisions again," Pruitt said.
Udall asked Pruitt why he hasn't responded to questions about his living arrangement in a condo connected to J. Stephen Hart, the former chairman of Williams & Jensen whose wife co-owned a condo where Pruitt lived during his first year in Washington. It was recently reported that Hart emailed the EPA about nominees for an advisory board even though that was not previously disclosed.
Pruitt said that Hart was not registered as lobbying EPA for his firm at the time and cited the decisions from EPA ethics officials that the condo did not constitute an inappropriate gift because it matched other market rates. Those officials have also said that their statements about the deal only applied to whether it was a gift and not if it was a conflict of interest.
"Mr. Hart was a lobbyist and you rented a room from him and you had issues pending before your agency at the time that Hart's firm was working on. To me, that is just the exact swamp that President Trump was trying to get rid of and all of these questions I have been asking about is this swampy behavior that is going on here," Udall said.
The subcommittee's chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked Pruitt about several policy issues impacting her state but also said that he needs to address some of the swirling questions around his conduct.
"Instead of being asked about the work that you are doing on WOTUS, or the Clean Power Plan, or the Superfund program I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on security on housing or on travel," Murkowski said in her opening statement.
Udall also pressed Pruitt about reports that he told his security detail to use lights and sirens to help him get through Washington, DC, traffic.
Pruitt said he "did not recall" any instance like that and that his security detail followed agency procedure for using lights and sirens. Udall submitted an email from the former head of the EPA security detail that seemed to contradict that statement.
“Administrator encourages the use,” an email from Pasquale “Nino” Perotta read under the subject line, “Lights and Sirens.”
That email was released by Democrats on a different Senate committee with oversight of EPA in a letter to the agency's inspector general asking for an investigation into Perrotta.
Six Democrats on that committee called for Pruitt to testify, saying that a new letter from the inspector general directly contradicts his previous testimony to two House subcommittees.
In that letter to Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on Monday the EPA's internal watchdog said Pruitt requested a 24/7 security detail before his first day at the agency.
Udall and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D- Md., asked Pruitt to explain that letter. Both Van Hollen and Pruitt read from the document but Pruitt insisted that the decision was made by his security detail and that he did not request it.
"I can only say senator I did not decide, direct that decision to be made," Pruitt said.
Van Hollen said that the document shows that the security team was directed to increase security for Pruitt, not that it determined the upgraded security was necessary.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., asked about a report in Politico earlier this week that officials from EPA, DOD, and the White House asked HHS to delay a report on the safety of a chemical that is present in drinking water supplies across the country, known as PFAS or PFOS chemicals.
The story cited emails from a White House official that would reportedly have said that the chemical is dangerous at much lower levels than currently recommended and referred to is as a "public relations nightmare."
Pruitt said the agency is having a summit on these chemicals and said he supports having the information in the public and taking action to clean up these chemicals.
"I was not aware there had been some holding back the report, I think it’s important to have all information out there in the marketplace," Pruitt said.
In a press conference after the hearing, Udall said that Democrats will continue to put pressure on Pruitt, even if Pruitt is "being protected" by Republicans.