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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt acknowledged Wednesday that one of his top aides helped him search for housing last year — a potential violation of federal law — but said she had done so “on personal time.”
The admission came during a Senate budget hearing, which including sharp questions from Democrats about the administrator’s ethics and spending decisions. Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee focused largely on the agency’s policy actions.
Three Democratic senators — Tom Udall (N.M.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) — devoted the bulk of their time to asking Pruitt about actions that have prompted more than a dozen probes by EPA’s Office of Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and the White House itself.
Leahy belittled Pruitt’s claim that he needed to fly first class because of security concerns. “Nobody even knew who you were … You have to fly first class? Oh c’mon,” Leahy said. Such decisions had made Pruitt and the EPA “a laughingstock,” he added.
Udall, describing Pruitt’s management of the agency as “disastrous,” again called on Pruitt to resign. The former Oklahoma attorney general, he said, has treated his “position of public trust as a golden ticket for extravagant travel and fine dining.”
At one point, the lawmaker asked Pruitt to provide details on how he had enlisted aide Millan Hupp to help locate local apartment rentals for him last summer. The Washington Post first reported last month that Hupp, who now serves as EPA’s head of scheduling and advance, contacted a District real estate firm and individual homeowners to view properties.
Pruitt, who did not refer to Hupp by name but called her “a longtime friend,” said that when it came to her assistance, “it’s my understanding that all activity there was on personal time.” He added that he did not pay her for this service.
“Then that’s a gift, that’s a violation of federal law,” Udall said, noting that subordinates of federal officials are prohibited from providing free services to their bosses.
Part of Hupp’s search took place during office hours, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. Both of them, as well as Capitol Hill resident Laurie Solnik, who showed her apartment to Pruitt at Hupp’s request, said the young woman primarily used a personal email account and phone to conduct the search.
According to Don Fox, former acting director and general counsel for the Office of Government Ethics, this activity violates “a general prohibition against misusing government resources” regardless of what time of day Hupp did the work.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the panel’s top Republican, noted the numerous allegations surrounding Pruitt at the outset of the hearing.
“I am concerned that many of the important policy efforts that you are engaged in are being overshadowed because of a series of issues related to you and your management of the agency,” she said. “Instead of being asked about the work you are doing … I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on [your] security, housing and travel.”
While agreeing with many of Pruitt’s policy moves, Murkowski said that when it comes to his ethics, “I do think there are legitimate questions that need to be answered.”
Other GOP senators praised Pruitt’s policy performance and did not raise any objections over his spending. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss) said she was “most impressed” with his push to ease regulations and clean up a contaminated site in her state.
“You have taken a common-sense approach to the environmental regulatory process,” Hyde-Smith said.
For his part, Pruitt took the same approach as he did in a pair of contentious House hearings last month, largely steering clear in his opening statement of addressing the dozen probes he is facing on topics such as the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office, a cut-rate condo rental from a lobbyist last year and his domestic and international travel expenses.
Under his watch, Pruitt argued, the EPA had made “enormous progress” on President Trump’s agenda, “stripping burdensome costs from the economy” without sacrificing environmental protections.
When Murkowski gave him a chance early on to address the various controversies that have consumed the past months, Pruitt came as close as he ever has to publicly acknowledging any personal shortcomings.
“There have been decisions over the past 16 months that, as I look back, I would not make the same decisions again,” he said.
But Pruitt downplayed his own roles in several instances of excessive agency spending. Referring to the fact that EPA spent the privacy phone booth that he’d requested, the administrator said, “There were not proper controls in place.”
And he repeatedly pivoted to his past positions when pressed about the controversies about his leadership, laying blame for spending decisions at the feet of EPA career and political staffers, and saying public scrutiny about him has been driven by groups who oppose the agency’s direction under Trump.
Udall pressed Pruitt on whether he had instructed EPA agents to turn on emergency lights and sirens as they drove him around Washington. Former employees have told The Washington Post and other media that the administrator urged his protective detail to put both on to speed through traffic and that the initial head of his protective detail, Eric Weese, was reassigned after objecting to this practice.
“I don’t recall that happening,” Pruitt replied, adding that “there are policies in place” governing the use of lights and sirens. “Those policies were followed, to the best of my knowledge, by the agents who serve me.”
Udall then cited a Feb. 27, 2017 email released Wednesday by Democratic Sens. Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), in which then-EPA special agent Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta informed colleagues that the “Administrator encourages the use” of lights and sirens.
“You personally requested that, on a number of those trips,” Udall said.
“No, I don’t recall that,” Pruitt responded.
Udall has asked the Government Accountability Office to probe whether a recent EPA tweet violated a law that prohibits the use of federal funds for propaganda or publicity. In the tweet, the agency appeared to mock Democrats after the long-awaited confirmation of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as Pruitt’s top deputy.
“The agency should not have done that,” Pruitt said, though he declined to apologize for the tweet when Udall asked him to do so.
Under questioning from Van Hollen, Pruitt acknowledged that his allies have created a legal-defense fund to help defray legal costs associated with the investigations he now faces. Asked whether the names of donors will be made public, the administrator said “they will be published” in accordance with federal legal requirements.
Cleta Mitchell, a partner at Foley & Lardner specializing in political law, established the fund, according to two individuals briefed on the matter. In an email replying to questions about her role, Mitchell wrote, “Scott has been a friend and client for a long time so I would not be in a position to speak to you about him or any work I have or might or might not do for him.”