Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt found himself in the hot seat before a Senate panel on Wednesday, with one lawmaker disclosing that the agency head is the subject of a dozen investigations into a variety of alleged abuses of power.
Ostensibly appearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies to discuss President Trump's proposed budget for the EPA in fiscal year (FY) 2019, Pruitt bristled at criticism leveled against him by lawmakers from both parties.
"Every day there seems to be a new scandal and you at dead center," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the subcommittee's ranking member. "What is surprising is the breadth of voices who agree with me that your leadership at the EPA is disastrous. I think it's extraordinary that so many previous administrators of the EPA, including Republicans, have lambasted your leadership...
"Your tenure at the EPA is a betrayal of the American people."
Udall said Pruitt is the subject of 12 investigations, including five by the EPA's Office of Inspector General (IG). According to Udall, the IG is looking into the administrator's luxury travel; trips to Oklahoma for football games; the use of a condo owned by a lobbyist at a discounted rate; the use of clean drinking water programs for political purposes; and payments to a close adviser who didn't show up for work for three months.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was also investigating "your questionable policies to stack EPA's science advisory committees with industry [lobbyists], as well as a lobbying video you starred in urging political action," Udall said. He added that the White House was conducting its own investigation into the condo rental, as well as a separate probe into a $43,000 "soundproof privacy booth" Pruitt had installed in his Washington, DC, office. Last month, the GAO determined that EPA violated federal law when it bought and installed the booth.
Udall said he had requested that the GAO and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) conduct separate investigations into whether the EPA violated the Hatch Act in a tweet on April 13. The act prohibits federal employees from engaging in some forms of political activity.
"These two investigations into EPA's single tweet encapsulate a running theme: your disregard for ethics and your disregard for taxpayer dollars," Udall said. He also called the EPA's budget request "dead on arrival."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), vice chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, also took aim at Pruitt. He bemoaned "a seemingly endless stream of controversies at the EPA.
"It's troubling enough that your personal fundamental missions seem to be undermining the very mission of the agency you were appointed to lead. But the embarrassment these scandals have wrought continues as a pattern of putting personal and special interests ahead of the well-being of the American people."
Even Republicans voiced frustration. The subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), said that while she recognized that Pruitt had made tangible progress on some issues championed by the GOP, she was also concerned those accomplishments "are being overshadowed because of a series of issues related to you and your management of the agency.
"Instead of being asked about the work that you are doing on WOTUS [Waters of the United States] or the Clean Power Plan or the Superfund program, I am being constantly asked to comment on security, on housing and on travel," Murkowski said. "Instead of seeing articles about your efforts to return the agency to its core mission, I am reading about your interactions with representatives of the industries that you regulate.
"Now some of this undoubtedly is a result of the 'gotcha' age that we live in today that dominates the politics of today, but I do think that there are legitimate questions that need to be answered."
But Pruitt pushed back from the start.
"There have been decisions over the past 16 or so months that, as I look back on those decisions, I would not make the same decisions again," Pruitt said. "But some of the areas of criticism are, frankly, areas where processes at the agency were not properly instituted to prevent certain abuses from happening.
"I share your concerns about some of these decisions. I want to rectify those going forward. I also want to highlight for you that some of the criticism is unfounded and I think exaggerated. And I think it feeds this division that we've seen around very important issues affecting the environment."
Shortly after Pruitt started speaking, about five protesters wearing neon green shirts emblazoned with "impeach Pruitt" held up signs that said "fire him" in capital letters. The protesters were then asked to leave the hearing and did so peacefully.
Last February, President Trump proposed allocating $5.4 billion to the EPA in fiscal year (FY) 2019. But if Monday's rollout by the House Appropriations Committee of a proposed FY2019 budget that includes $7.96 billion for the EPA is any indication, the agency is all but assured to get more money than the White House had envisioned.