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Testifying before House lawmakers in the first half of a marathon day on Capitol Hill, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said he will cooperate with investigators on 10 pending probes into spending and ethics at the EPA.
Pruitt told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he wants to “establish the hard facts and provide answers” to investigations regarding his spending on security and official travel, as well reports of a favorable deal on a Washington, D.C. condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist.
“Let me be very clear: I have nothing to hide as it relates to how I’ve run the agency for the past 16 months. I’m not afraid to admit that there has been a learning process. When Congress or independent bodies of oversight find fault in our decision making, I want to correct that and ensure that does not happen again,” Pruitt said Thursday morning.
However, Pruitt made it clear to lawmakers that he doesn’t plan on stepping down.
“Those who have attacked the EPA and attacked 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,” Pruitt said.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office found the EPA violated federal spending laws when it spent $43,000 of a soundproof “privacy booth” in Pruitt’s office without notifying the House and Senate appropriations committees.
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers his agency will investigate the claims made in GAO’s report, and determine what punishment, if any, would be necessary.
Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) asked Pruitt to explain why the soundproof booth was installed when the agency already has secure locations to make calls.
“We are concerned about some of the allegations regarding the overspending,” Lance said, “Isn’t there other secure locations within your agency, and why did we need to spend taxpayer funds to build a new secure place for making telephone calls?”
Pruitt told Lance he needed a place in his office to hold confidential calls.
“I simply requested for secure communications, a secure line, in my office, based upon phone calls that occurred that are confidential in nature. And so, based upon that instruction, a process ensued where this investment took place.”
Pruitt told Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) that EPA career staff informed officials who oversaw the installation of the soundproof booth that they didn’t have to notify Congress about the spending.
“The Office of General Counsel, career individuals at the agency, advised that those folks going through the expenditure process that they did not need to notify Congress. GAO came out recently and said otherwise,” Pruitt said.
“So it was your position that you had no responsibility to notify Congress of these expenditures?” Butterfield asked.
Pruitt said the EPA has since notified Congress about the spending on booth.
“I believe that the decision has been remedied, and it should have been done at the beginning. But it was not done, and the question is, as they made those decisions, who guided that? And it was career individuals at the agency,” he said.
Lawmakers scheduled Thursday’s hearing to discuss President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal for the EPA, but lawmakers’ questions about the Pruitt investigations largely dominated the conversation.
A number of Republicans expressed concern over how the investigations have distracted from environmental policy and management issues.
“I’m concerned that the good progress being made on the policy front is being undercut by allegations about your management of the agency and use of its resources,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.).
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the chairman of the environment subcommittee, also acknowledged media reports and investigations regarding Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA.
“I consider much of this narrative to be a distraction, but one that this committee cannot ignore,” Shimkus said.
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) said he’s concerned that political leadership at the EPA has been hurting the morale of the EPA’s workforce.
“I know many career employees at EPA simply want to work hard to ensure the air we breathe is clean and the water we drink is safe,” Tonko said. “To them, I say thank you. But the agency’s political leadership is pursuing a different agenda, and the mounting evidence of serious ethics violations and credible investigations at the highest level cannot go unscrutinized.”
House and Senate committees also have pending inquiries into Pruitt. They’re looking into a range of allegations, including his use of multiple email accounts for official business, and whether he got a favorable deal on a Washington, D.C. condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist.
The EPA’s Office of Inspector General currently has four pending investigations into Pruitt.
“At this point, we must ask if the inspector general will have the resources needed to investigate the administrator’s seemingly endless misconduct,” Tonko said.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J) said he has called on the Office of Special Counsel to investigate whether the EPA retaliated against career employees who questioned Pruitt’s spending.
“I’m confident that these investigations what I’ve affirm what I’ve come to believe is true – that you are unfit to hold public office,” Pallone said.
Last week, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) also asked the OSC to investigate the EPA.
Pruitt also testified before the House Appropriations Committee Thursday afternoon.