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EPA chief Pruitt tells lawmakers ethics charges are distractions, lies

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt departs after he testifying before a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency budget in Washington, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt departs after he testifying before a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency budget in Washington, U.S., April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

WASHINGTON — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt told lawmakers during a heated congressional hearing on Thursday that allegations of ethical missteps plaguing his tenure are untrue and are intended to derail President Donald Trump’s agenda.

“Facts are facts and fiction is fiction,” the embattled agency chief told a House of Representatives panel in the first of two hearings at which he was due to appear. “And a lie doesn’t become true just because it appears in the front page of the newspaper.”

The hearings, ostensibly to discuss the EPA budget, pose a critical test for Pruitt as he seeks to avoid becoming the latest in a long list of Cabinet members and senior White House officials who have either quit or been fired by Trump.

Trump administration officials have become increasingly frustrated by news reports on Pruitt ranging from his spending on first-class air travel and security, to his rental of a room in a high-end Washington condo linked to an energy lobbyist.

“Much of what has been targeted at me and my team has been half truths or, at best, stories that have been so twisted that they do not resemble reality,” Pruitt testified.

“Let’s have no illusions about what is really going on here,” Pruitt added. “Those who attack the EPA and attack me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president’s agenda and undermine this administration’s priorities. I’m simply not going to let that happen.”

There are nearly a dozen pending investigations into Pruitt with the EPA inspector general, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the White House Office of Management and Budget, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives oversight committee.

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Democrats on Thursday hammered Pruitt with rapid-fire “yes or no” questions about the scandals, at times calling his conduct shameful and embarrassing.

Representative Paul Tonko of New York ripped Pruitt for his “seemingly endless misconduct” and “what appears to be a propensity for grift.”

Pruitt often avoided being pinned down on specifics.

Asked by one lawmaker about whether he was aware that the EPA’s purchase of a $43,000 secure phone booth for his office violated spending laws before it was approved, Pruitt responded, “We are investigating this internally.”

The GAO this month said the EPA violated the law by installing the soundproof booth without telling lawmakers first.

‘INNUENDO AND MCCARTHYISM’

Representative David McKinley of West Virginia was among some Republican lawmakers expressing support for Pruitt, saying the hearing was a “classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism,” a reference to a 1950s-era campaign to root out communists.

Republican Gregg Harper of Mississippi decried what he saw as the “political bloodsport” of going after Trump administration officials. But Harper, like several Democrats, raised concerns about reports that whistleblowers had been removed or reassigned at Pruitt’s EPA.

Pruitt denied the claims, saying, “There’s no truth to the assertion that positions have been reassigned. I’m not aware of that ever happening.”

Tonko asked Pruitt about reports that the EPA had provided improper pay raises to two political aides. Pruitt previously told Fox News he was completely unaware of the raises and that his Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson was responsible.

Tonko asked Pruitt whether he authorized Jackson to sign documents allowing for the raises.

“Those were delegated to Mr. Jackson,” Pruitt responded.

“You did authorize it? That decision was made by you? Yes or no?” Tonko asked.

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“There are delegations giving him that authority,” Pruitt responded without giving a direct answer.

Pruitt is due to testify before another House panel later in the day.

The EPA has defended Pruitt’s spending on travel and security, saying it has been crucial to protecting him from public threats and ensuring he can conduct confidential work, and have also pointed out that Pruitt’s lease for the room in Washington from the wife of an energy lobbyist was around market rate.

The tumult in the administration was underscored earlier on Thursday when Trump’s physician Ronny Jackson withdrew from consideration to head the Department of Veterans Affairs after allegations about misconduct mounted.

Pruitt has drawn praise from conservatives during his EPA tenure for rolling back Democratic former President Barack Obama’s policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other environmental regulations opposed by industry, as well as his role in Trump’s decision to abandon the 2015 Paris global climate change agreement.

Although Trump has expressed support for Pruitt for his work on scaling back environmental regulations, White House sources have told Reuters officials are worried about the flow of charges against him.

Democratic lawmakers who oppose Pruitt’s regulatory rollbacks have seized on his scandals, with 170 of them calling for his resignation. In recent days, five Republican Congress members have joined their ranks in calling for his ouster.

(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Will Dunham)

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