exaggerated@ (Recasts with Pruitt comments, quotes from senators)
WASHINGTON, May 16 (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt told senators on Wednesday that some of the controversies surrounding his tenure are "unfounded and exaggerated," as lawmakers bombarded him with questions about his spending and alleged ethical missteps.
Pruitt has been under pressure from mainly Democratic lawmakers in recent weeks over reports about his use of first-class travel, his 24/7 security detail, costly office renovations, and ties to industry - but has retained the support of President Donald Trump and most Republicans for his efforts to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations.
"Some of the criticism is unfounded and exaggerated," Pruitt said in front of the 13-member Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies in a hearing meant to focus on EPA's 2019 budget.
The comment came after Democratic senators lambasted Pruitt's record at EPA. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont called Pruitt's efforts to roll back environmental regulations at EPA "unconscionable," and quipped that his controversies had made him a "laughing stock."
Ranking member of the committee, New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, said in his opening statement that Pruitt's tenure at EPA "is a betrayal of the American people."
Most of the committee's six Democratic members have publicly called for Pruitt's resignation.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski chair of the Appropriations subcommittee said in her opening remarks that she welcomed some of Pruitts regulatory agenda but said his ethics scandals are detracting from a focus on policy.
"Unfortunately, I am concerned that many of the important policy efforts you are engaged in are being overshadowed because of issues related to you and your management of agency," she said. "There are some legitimate questions that need to be answered," she said.
The controversies have triggered 12 investigations by the EPA's inspector general, congressional committees and the White House. A Government Accountability Office probe recently concluded that the EPA had violated the law by spending $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth for Pruitt's office without notifying lawmakers first.
Pruitt told the committee that some changes have been implemented since some of the scandals broke, including adding a new requirement that any spending over $5,000 needs to be signed off by several senior officials.
Pruitt has also said that he has stopped routinely flying first class, something the agency had previously defended as a way to help him avoid threats from the public. (Writing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy)