Lawmakers grilling EPA chief Scott Pruitt: 'You are unfit to hold public office'

Scott Pruitt's controversial spending and travel decisions were the subject of a blistering congressional hearing Thu...

Posted: Apr 27, 2018 6:49 AM
Updated: Apr 27, 2018 6:49 AM

Scott Pruitt's controversial spending and travel decisions were the subject of a blistering congressional hearing Thursday, where the embattled administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency faced House members amid weeks of scandal.

Pruitt first testified with the House Energy and Commerce Committee and then later Thursday he testified before the House Appropriations Committee.

While he was scheduled to talk about the budget of his agency, he was sharply questioned from Democrats -- as well as from some Republicans -- over a long list of decisions that have landed him in the headlines. He's faced a barrage of criticism for allegedly spending extravagantly on security, building a soundproof booth in his office, approving raises for staffers and renting a condo from a lobbyist who had business before his agency.

"There are so many outstanding questions that we need truthful answers to today, because so far, we've only gotten half-truths, misleading answers, or outright falsehoods," said Rep. Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the committee, in his opening statement.

"You are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust," he concluded.

The committee's top Republican, Chairman Greg Walden, also raised concerns that Pruitt's policies are "being undercut" by ethics controversies. "These issues are too persistent to ignore, and I know many members are looking for more clarity from you today," he said.

Pruitt addressed the allegations in his opening remarks, saying the responsibility to make changes at the EPA "rests with me and no one else" but argued much of what has been claimed is distorted.

"Facts are facts and fiction is fiction. And a lie doesn't become truth just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper," he said.

"Much of what has been targeted towards me and my team, has been half-truths, or at best stories that have been so twisted they do not resemble reality," he continued. "I'm here and I welcome the chance to be here to set the record straight in these areas. But let's have no allusions about what's really going on here."

Questions over raises

Rep. Paul Tonko, a top Democrat on the committee, was the first to question Pruitt and attempted to get the administrator to admit that he authorized the raises of two top staffers who also worked for Pruitt when he was attorney general of Oklahoma - an issue that the EPA's inspector general is also probing.

Pruitt said he was "not aware of the amount" of the raises and would not give a straight "yes" or "no" answer to whether he authorized them, but he admitted he authorized his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, to sign off on the salary increases. Pruitt also said he was not aware that proper protocols were bypassed to issue the raises.

That was a contradiction to what he told Fox News earlier this month when he said he didn't know about the pay raises at all until they were revealed in public reports the day before the interview.

"Well then, I'm concerned that you have no idea what is going on in your name at your agency," Tonko said.

Blasting back at Democrats, Republican Rep. David McKinley argued their attempts to question Pruitt was a "classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism," adding he hoped the questions would stay focused on policy but "some just can't resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand."

Questions over $43,000 booth

Pruitt also addressed concerns about a $43,000 soundproof booth that his office purchased and was found to violate federal spending law by a Government Accountability Office report.

Pressed by Rep. Tony Cardenas, a California Democrat, about the booth, Pruitt said the idea originated after he received a phone call of a sensitive nature and "did not have access to secure communications."

He said he ordered his staff to address the situation. "And out of that came a $43,000 expenditure that I did not approve," he said.

Cardenas, following up, asked Pruitt if he was blaming his staff for the episode.

"Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through," Pruitt said. "I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000, and if I had known about it, Congressman, I would have refused it."

Republican Rep. Ryan Costello also questioned Pruitt about the privacy booth, as well as Pruitt's unprecedented 24-hour security detail during family vacations. Pruitt, in response, read two threats that were listed in a document that he says was from the inspector general, including one in which a person threatened to "put a bullet in between your eyes."

Pruitt argued it was because of those threats that his travel office started upgrading him to first class travel last year. But Pruitt repeatedly said he has "made changes" so that he's not flying first class anymore.

While the first hearing was in a large room with dozens of members taking turns for questions, the second hearing took place around a long table in a small room, with Pruitt surrounded by about a dozen members on a House appropriations subcommittee.

Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, launched some of the most pointed questioning at Pruitt while sitting directly across from him at the table.

"Mr. Pruitt, I think it's time that you resign," she said.

All eyes on Pruitt hearing

Key audiences at the White House and the EPA are watching Thursday's pair of hearings.

"Things are definitely grinding to a halt today," an EPA official told CNN. "I don't know of a single person planning not to stream this in their office."

Many EPA officials -- including conservative political appointees -- are hoping the EPA administrator goes up in flames, two EPA officials told CNN. Many EPA officials who believe the EPA administrator should be pushed out of his Cabinet-level position because of his behavior at the agency's helm are hoping that an abysmal televised performance will sink Pruitt in President Donald Trump's mind.

Beyond a handful of aides who are loyal to Pruitt, much of the agency's politically-appointed members have lost confidence in the EPA administrator -- believing he has been a distraction to the agency's mission and Trump's agenda.

Pruitt loyalists, though, were surprisingly upbeat Thursday morning during a senior staff meeting at EPA headquarters, one official said, appearing "extremely confident."

"They either know something nobody else does or they're that naive," one official said.

A senior White House official told CNN aides to the President will be watching Pruitt's performance, given the fact that the administrator and his team rejected White House attempts to prepare him for his testimony.

Multiple White House sources have told CNN this week that the President still backs Pruitt, though all eyes will be on his performance Thursday. At the daily White House briefing, a reporter asked spokeswoman Sarah Sanders why Pruitt still had a job in an administration that promised to "drain the swamp."

"We're evaluating these concerns, and we expect the EPA administrator to answer for them," Sanders said. "And we'll keep you posted."

Preparing for the hearing

While Pruitt turned down assistance from White House staff to prep for his hearings, he did reach out to a fellow Republican from Oklahoma for advice. "He gave me a call, and I warned him it was going to be a fairly rugged hearing," GOP Rep. Tom Cole, a senior member on the appropriations panel, told reporters Wednesday.

Cole said he told Pruitt to talk to the chairman of the committee and call individual members -- Republican and Democrat -- ahead of time. "Give them an opportunity to ask any questions they want and say 'I want to be prepared to answer anything you want to address.' I just think that puts you in a stronger position, but I have no idea whether he's done that or not," Cole added.

When asked about Pruitt opting out of a briefing by aides familiar with the committee's concerns, Cole said it was Pruitt's judgment to make. "But if you work for the President of the United States, it's usually a wise thing to listen to his direct employees."

So far at least four House Republicans have called for Pruitt to resign, though none of them sit on either committee that will question Pruitt on Thursday. Still, anticipating questions from Democrats, Cole said one could "expect a pretty highly charged hearing."

The number three House Republican, who sits on one of the panels that will question Pruitt Thursday, praised his tenure at the agency to reporters on Wednesday.

One top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Kathy Castor, cosponsored a resolution calling for Pruitt's resignation that was signed by 170 Democratic members and senators. And several of the committee's Democrats held a news conference right before Thursday morning's hearing to highlight their concerns.

This story has been updated and will continue to update with additional developments.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 118322

Reported Deaths: 3591
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion21502767
Lake10688323
Elkhart6707111
St. Joseph6619113
Allen6330205
Hamilton4938109
Vanderburgh378131
Hendricks2766124
Monroe265536
Tippecanoe256613
Johnson2352124
Clark225957
Porter219947
Delaware200162
Cass19559
Vigo186827
Madison170375
LaPorte149141
Floyd139664
Warrick138242
Howard132663
Kosciusko125917
Bartholomew118457
Marshall101524
Dubois99919
Boone99146
Grant95134
Hancock94643
Noble93132
Henry81226
Jackson7739
Wayne77014
Morgan73438
Daviess68028
Shelby68029
Dearborn67528
LaGrange64011
Clinton62314
Harrison59224
Putnam58411
Gibson5355
Knox5289
Lawrence51629
Montgomery51121
DeKalb48811
White48714
Decatur45939
Miami4394
Greene42735
Fayette42313
Jasper4012
Scott39011
Steuben3907
Posey3460
Sullivan33812
Jennings31612
Franklin31325
Clay3085
Ripley3078
Orange28824
Whitley2826
Carroll27813
Adams2763
Wabash2728
Starke2717
Washington2701
Wells2674
Spencer2633
Jefferson2503
Huntington2473
Fulton2442
Tipton22822
Randolph2238
Perry22113
Jay1920
Newton17411
Owen1711
Martin1680
Pike1641
Rush1574
Vermillion1310
Fountain1292
Blackford1213
Pulaski1141
Crawford1100
Parke1072
Brown1043
Benton870
Ohio797
Union790
Switzerland690
Warren411
Unassigned0226

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 151802

Reported Deaths: 4746
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin27119607
Cuyahoga17554656
Hamilton13237315
Montgomery7938164
Lucas7343364
Butler6085111
Summit5366252
Warren311549
Marion311147
Mahoning3095281
Stark2913175
Pickaway267944
Lorain233386
Delaware230621
Fairfield213253
Licking194963
Columbiana194080
Wood192172
Trumbull1916132
Clark183940
Clermont174423
Lake164851
Greene149034
Medina147539
Miami146351
Allen146269
Portage116866
Mercer113218
Erie95947
Tuscarawas94120
Wayne94068
Richland92219
Ross89624
Madison84312
Darke80643
Geauga72649
Athens7242
Belmont72427
Hancock72010
Lawrence67122
Ashtabula66048
Shelby66010
Putnam61923
Auglaize6119
Sandusky58020
Huron5557
Union5512
Scioto5167
Seneca48814
Ottawa47130
Preble44515
Muskingum4383
Holmes3959
Jefferson3384
Henry33414
Defiance33012
Champaign3133
Logan3133
Clinton30213
Perry3009
Brown2922
Knox28815
Washington26223
Jackson2616
Morrow2612
Fulton2591
Hardin25713
Crawford2476
Ashland2464
Coshocton23411
Fayette2336
Highland2303
Williams2143
Wyandot21312
Pike2020
Gallia19613
Meigs17610
Guernsey1738
Hocking1679
Carroll1527
Adams1364
Van Wert1243
Monroe11018
Paulding1100
Harrison643
Morgan500
Vinton473
Noble340
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
50° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 50°
Angola
Clear
48° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 44°
Feels Like: 45°
Huntington
Clear
48° wxIcon
Hi: 63° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 46°
Decatur
Overcast
50° wxIcon
Hi: 65° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 50°
Van Wert
Scattered Clouds
48° wxIcon
Hi: 66° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 45°
Few Showers Wednesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events