Pruitt Says Legal Fund to Bar Cash From Those With EPA Business

(Bloomberg) -- A private fund to help Scott Pruitt pay legal bills amid investigations of his taxpayer-funded travel, unorthodox condo rental and security protection will not accept donations from people with business before the EPA.

Pruitt made the pledge during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday as he faced withering criticism for his leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency -- and his new strategy for dealing with the legal fallout from a series of controversies.

The EPA administrator said he had worked with the White House Office of Legal Counsel and the Government Accountability Office to establish the fund, would follow their guidance and would publish information about donations.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, said he was concerned the legal fund could exacerbate the ethical concerns surrounding Pruitt, especially if it received cash from anonymous donors seeking to influence EPA policy decisions.

“I want to make sure that however this works you’re not subject to more allegations” about violating the public trust, Van Hollen said.

Pruitt faces at least 10 federal investigations, and on Wednesday, he also faced intense criticism from senators weary of the deluge of allegations that began in March.

"Your leadership at the EPA is disastrous," Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, told Pruitt, adding that he was just as concerned by the administrator’s work to undo environmental regulations.

"Both your scandals and your policy decisions abuse your position of public trust and make a mockery of your responsibilities as head of EPA," Udall said. "You show the same disregard for our ethical standards and fiscal controls as you show for the air we breathe and the water we drink."

Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who heads the appropriations subcommittee grilling Pruitt, cast the controversies as a distraction overshadowing Pruitt’s policy work. Instead of being queried about the EPA’s efforts to rewrite a water pollution rule and other regulations, Murkowski said she’s "constantly being asked" to comment on Pruitt’s security protection, housing and travel.

"Some of this undoubtedly is a result of the gotcha age that we live in today that dominates the politics of today," Murkowski said. "But I do think there are legitimate questions that need to be answered.”

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The session was formally called to focus on the agency’s budget. But policy matters were mostly overshadowed as senators pressed the administrator about his around-the-clock security protection, taxpayer-funded travel, spending decisions at the EPA and raises for top aides over White House objections.

Pruitt told Murkowski he shared her concern about some decisions, but he cast other controversies as overblown: “Some of the criticism is unfounded and I think exaggerated and I think it feeds this division we’ve seen around important issues affecting the environment,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt brushed aside allegations he improperly requested the use of emergency lights and sirens while being driven through Washington in a government vehicle. An email from the former head of Pruitt’s protective detail says the EPA chief "encouraged" their use.

But Pruitt said he didn’t recall making the request and insisted that to the best of his knowledge policies governing the use of lights were followed.

Udall pressed Pruitt about reports a top aide -- later given a hefty raise -- helped him find housing in Washington. Federal rules block Pruitt from ordering a subordinate to do such personal work for him, and since Pruitt didn’t pay for the house-hunting help, it constitutes a gift and is a violation of federal law, Udall said.

“Did your staff contact realtors and arrange tours for you during working hours?” Udall asked.

“It’s my understanding that all activity there was on personal time,” Pruitt said, adding that there was no connection to any pay increase and stressing that the aide is a family friend.

Pruitt was in front of a decidedly unfriendly audience. Six of the seven Democrats on the panel have already signed onto a resolution calling on him to resign. Activists held signs saying "Fire Him" as Pruitt began testifying.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, mocked Pruitt’s reliance on first-class travel. Although Pruitt now flies coach, he booked first-class seats in commercial aircraft during most trips last year, with the EPA justifying the practice on security grounds.

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"What a silly reason you had to fly first class," Leahy said. "Somebody might criticize you. You’ve got security people that we’ve never seen before. But you have to fly first class? Oh, come on."

Leahy said the cascade of scandals "are an embarrassment to the agency; they are an embarrassment to Republicans and Democrats alike.”

Recently released documents have shed more light on Pruitt’s oversight of the agency, revealing frequent consultation with industries regulated by the EPA. They also underscored the role influential donors and lobbyists played in planning some of his travel. Sheldon Adelson, chairman of casino operator Las Vegas Sands, helped arrange parts of Pruitt’s itinerary for a subsequently canceled trip to Israel originally slated for February. And Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, initially paid for Pruitt’s meal at a restaurant in Rome last June, as first reported by The Washington Post.

Pruitt defended his around-the-clock protection by noting the intensity of interest in him that began even before his February 2017 confirmation. As a longtime critic of the agency he now leads, Pruitt has drawn widespread criticism from activists who say he is dismantling the EPA and undermining regulations meant to safeguard the air and water. Newly released documents show stepped-up security protection for Pruitt began on his first day at the agency and was arranged before his arrival.

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