Pruitt's Capitol Hill Defense on Allegations: Don't Blame Me

(Bloomberg) -- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt made it through nearly six hours of grilling on Capitol Hill on Thursday by mostly blaming subordinates for the swirl of ethics allegations that have endangered his tenure.

The EPA chief asserted in back-to-back House hearings that he was not aware of the size of the pay raises that were granted to two top aides over White House objections; didn’t ask to fly first-class; and didn’t know that the secure phone booth installed in his office was going to cost $43,000.

Pruitt's Capitol Hill Defense on Allegations: Don't Blame Me

"If I had known about it, I would not have approved it," Pruitt said when asked about the phone booth.

He stayed calm and lawyerly, managing to avoid any gaffes that could further jeopardize his job. But he didn’t appear to win any converts who could aid his political survival. White House officials have cautioned Republican lawmakers and other conservative allies to temper their defense of Pruitt, in a sign administration support for him may be waning.

"It’s never good to blame your staff," Illinois Representative John Shimkus, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce environment subcommittee, told reporters after the hearing. "Or you do it behind closed doors and you talk to them -- but not publicly."

Pruitt, 49, has drawn fire -- and at least nine formal investigations -- for frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma; questionable spending decisions at the EPA; the raises, which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars; and allegations that some employees were sidelined after questioning his decisions.

Democrats dinged Pruitt for not being able to definitively say whether he had paid taxes on earnings tied to Oklahoma real estate or whether an associate administrator had reliably shown up for work before resigning earlier this month.

"For someone who has been in the job for a year and half, he didn’t seem to be in command of a lot of details," Representative Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, observed after the afternoon appropriations subcommittee hearing with Pruitt.

Representative Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota, came right out at the hearing and told him he should resign.

"He could have taken personal responsibility," McCollum said afterward.

Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California, ticked through the allegations before asking Pruitt: "Do you have any remorse?"

Pruitt cast aside the controversies as “a distraction to our agenda,” and called them “half truths, or, at best, stories that are so twisted they do not represent reality.”

“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,” Pruitt said. “I have nothing to hide with how I ran the agency over the past 16 months."

Pruitt stressed he has made changes in response to some concerns, such as returning to flying coach when his first-class airline travel drew criticism. He said the costlier fares were chosen by security officials concerned about threats against him.

Travel Optics

"I felt like from an optics and perception standpoint it was creating a distraction," Pruitt said, in explaining the downgrade.

Some -- but not all -- Republicans provided a friendlier welcome, with several extolling Pruitt’s performance at the EPA, at least one apologizing for colleagues’ "abrasive" questions and two casting the deluge of accusations against the administrator as McCarthyism.

"It appears that it has become a political blood sport to try and destroy anybody with the Trump administration," observed Representative Gregg Harper, a Republican from Mississippi.

Representative David McKinley, a West Virginia Republican, said Pruitt had been the target of a “classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism that we’re seeing too often here in Washington.” Some lawmakers “just can’t resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand,” McKinley said.

Representative Leonard Lance, a Republican from New Jersey, said he was troubled by the allegations of overspending and singled out the phone booth acquisition. The EPA building in Washington already has a secure room where classified information can be shared, so why did we need to spend taxpayer funds on another, Lance asked. "I think it was a waste of funds."

"I gave a simple communication to my leadership team" asking for a secure phone line, Pruitt explained. "It turned into a 40,000-plus expenditure on this phone booth."

From beginning to end, that purchase was handled by EPA career staff, Pruitt said. "Those were all career individuals that were part of that process," Pruitt said.

Some Republicans said Pruitt deftly fielded questions, answering them about as well as he could have. "I think he did fine. I see no reason to change," said Representative Ken Calvert, a California Republican. "We have a committee that is looking into these charges and we’ll have a resolution to it."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.