GOP committee chair asks EPA for more documents to review Pruitt travel

South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy dispatched staff to the EPA this week.

April 11, 2018, 7:05 PM

The Republican chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to answer more questions about Administrator Scott Pruitt's arrangement to live in a Capitol Hill townhouse connected to lobbyists.

South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy asked the EPA to provide more documents to the committee on Wednesday so he can look into questions about the housing arrangement and the cost of Pruitt's travel and security detail.

In the new letter, Gowdy said that previously released statements from agency ethics officers are "insufficient to evaluate compliance with federal ethics rules." He asked the EPA to provide communications related to the housing arrangement, statements from ethics officials that the arrangement did not violate agency gift rules and any documents showing whether the use of the condo complied with the terms of the lease.

On Wednesday, Gowdy wrote to the EPA asking for more travel records showing that Pruitt had a waiver to fly first class and for documents showing the security threats that led the agency to justify Pruitt's first-class travel for security reasons.

Two Democrats on a different Senate committee with oversight of EPA called for hearings this week and said they have reviewed internal EPA documents that question the agency's justification for increased spending on security.

Gowdy's move to send staff to the EPA this week comes after the panel expanded its review to include Pruitt’s controversial $50-a-night rental arrangement. It's the latest sign that ethics concerns raised mostly by Democrats over Pruitt’s spending at the EPA could still spread across the aisle.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., announced Wednesday that Democrats in both the House and Senate plan to introduce resolutions calling for Pruitt to resign or be fired.

On Friday, the federal government's top ethics official sent a letter to the EPA expressing concerns with the mounting ethics questions facing Pruitt's actions at the agency, warning that the American public "needs to have confidence that ethics violations, as well as the appearance of ethics violations, are investigated and properly addressed."

Gowdy's staff is reviewing spending on Pruitt's travel, including Pruitt's recent trip to Morocco, and how much Pruitt and the government have spent on expenses and security, according to an aide. The committee's Republican staff has yet to review the waivers that allowed Pruitt to travel first class, which Gowdy first requested in a Feb. 20 letter. The EPA has previously turned over documents to the committee showing that Pruitt spent more than $105,000 on flights -- including first-class trips -- in his first nine months as the EPA chief.

Committee Democrats, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the panel, have asked Gowdy to subpoena the EPA for records and hold a hearing with Pruitt and top EPA officials.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a member of the committee, accused Republicans of not conducting oversight, saying Tuesday there has been "no serious investigation of anything with respect to this administration on our committee at all."

At least 80 Democrats and three Republicans have called for Pruitt’s firing or resignation following reports that he rented a Capitol Hill condo for $50 a night from a lobbyist whose husband has represented top energy firms, and that Pruitt improperly boosted the pay of close aides under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Some Republicans were critical of Pruitt's decisions in interviews but stopped short of calling for the administrator to resign.

"The bottom line this doesn't look good. I like Scott. He's done a good job, from my point of view, as being EPA administrator ... but the Congress has an oversight role here. And we'll see where this goes," Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said on ABC News' This Week.

Prominent conservatives on Capitol Hill and around Washington, including Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., have rallied around Pruitt and his record at the EPA, dismissing the criticism of his conduct.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate panel with jurisdiction over the EPA, said he is waiting for the outcome of a White House review of Pruitt’s conduct and spending.

The EPA inspector general is already probing the EPA administrator and former Oklahoma attorney general’s spending on travel and security, and could also decide to take up reviews of the condo and questions about whether he authorized substantial raises for two of his aides.

Pruitt and the EPA have said that his housing arrangement was approved by the department's ethics officials, who said in a statement that it did not violate gift rules. But there have been more questions and calls for investigation into whether it created a conflict of interest for Pruitt to rent from the wife of a lobbyist whose firm represented clients with interests before the EPA.

In response to questions about other congressional requests the EPA said it will respond through the appropriate channels. Pruitt is scheduled to testify in front of part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee later this month.

President Donald Trump has also continued to stand by Pruitt publicly, tweeting his support over the weekend.

Even if Pruitt were to resign or be fired, Republicans have expressed concern about confirming a replacement given their slim Senate majority and the absence of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is battling brain cancer at home in Arizona.

Pruitt was barely confirmed in February of 2017 in a 52-46 vote. Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia backed his bid, while Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine opposed his nomination.

The upper chamber is also facing looming confirmation battles for Trump’s new picks to lead the State Department, CIA and Department of Veterans Affairs.

As Pruitt and his allies continue to push back against criticism of his conduct in office, Democrats have continued to add to the drumbeat of calls for oversight and accountability at the EPA.

Two Democrats on the Environment and Public Works committee, Sen. Tom Carper, the ranking member, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, wrote Barrasso on Tuesday asking for into Pruitt’s security spending.

The senators wrote that they have reviewed internal EPA documents that question the agency's determination that Pruitt faced an "unprecedented amount of threats" compared to previous administrators. The determination that there have been more serious threats against Pruitt has been cited as the reason that he needs a 24/7 security detail and frequently takes first-class flights.

But the letter said that not everyone at the EPA agrees with that characterization and that evaluations from EPA offices and the U.S. Secret Service found no credible threats against Pruitt.

Barrasso slammed the Democrats’ letter in a statement Tuesday, reprimanding Democrats for releasing about the administrator's security. The letter quoted from the internal EPA documents but the full documents were not made public.