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 5:49 AM
Updated: Apr 27, 2018 5:49 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.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 313166

Reported Deaths: 7228
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21496257
Hinds20294414
Harrison17814309
Rankin13573278
Jackson13411246
Madison10066217
Lee9962173
Jones8364163
Forrest7649152
Lauderdale7181240
Lowndes6370145
Lamar621686
Lafayette6171118
Washington5323133
Bolivar4797132
Oktibbeha461498
Panola4561105
Pearl River4499145
Marshall4397103
Warren4380121
Pontotoc419572
Monroe4100133
Union409076
Neshoba4026176
Lincoln3950110
Hancock377786
Leflore3487125
Sunflower335790
Tate332484
Pike3301105
Scott315373
Alcorn311968
Yazoo310769
Itawamba299477
Copiah296465
Simpson294788
Coahoma294379
Tippah287768
Prentiss279560
Adams269582
Marion268880
Leake266273
Wayne262341
Grenada260386
Covington256381
George246848
Newton246061
Winston226881
Tishomingo225967
Jasper220848
Attala214173
Chickasaw207157
Holmes188673
Clay184754
Stone182033
Tallahatchie178140
Clarke177879
Calhoun170132
Yalobusha163337
Smith162234
Walthall133845
Greene130333
Lawrence128323
Montgomery126742
Noxubee126734
Perry125938
Amite122842
Carroll121728
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis106932
Tunica104826
Claiborne102230
Benton99125
Humphreys96133
Kemper95428
Franklin83623
Quitman80216
Choctaw76118
Wilkinson66930
Jefferson65428
Sharkey50317
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 530988

Reported Deaths: 10978
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson765291522
Mobile40971804
Madison34751503
Tuscaloosa25775452
Montgomery24329589
Shelby23431249
Baldwin21131308
Lee15884171
Calhoun14501314
Morgan14293279
Etowah13831353
Marshall12222223
Houston10567281
Elmore10061205
Limestone9960151
Cullman9664193
St. Clair9655243
Lauderdale9424241
DeKalb8830186
Talladega8223176
Walker7235277
Autauga6920108
Jackson6810112
Blount6660137
Colbert6298134
Coffee5511119
Dale4831111
Russell441138
Chilton4290112
Franklin425782
Covington4121118
Tallapoosa4027152
Escambia393376
Chambers3563123
Dallas3551151
Clarke351061
Marion3118101
Pike310877
Lawrence300298
Winston274472
Bibb260764
Geneva249977
Marengo249764
Pickens234461
Barbour230857
Hale222977
Butler215969
Fayette212362
Henry188744
Cherokee184845
Randolph180241
Monroe177440
Washington167339
Macon159150
Clay156256
Crenshaw152257
Cleburne148941
Lamar142535
Lowndes138853
Wilcox127130
Bullock123041
Conecuh110529
Perry107726
Coosa107228
Sumter104532
Greene92334
Choctaw60624
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Cloudy
58° wxIcon
Hi: 65° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 58°
Columbus
Cloudy
60° wxIcon
Hi: 66° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 60°
Oxford
Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 65° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 54°
Starkville
Cloudy
57° wxIcon
Hi: 65° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 57°
A frontal system to the south of our area will linger for a few more days. This lingering will linger some more chances for some showers and thunderstorms in our weather forecast over the next few days.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather