A Senate hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency's budget turned into a game of cat and mouse between the agency's embattled leader and Democratic lawmakers.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Wednesday weathered his second Capitol Hill grilling in just under a month. Pruitt is facing about a dozen investigations into his travel and security expenses, his rental of a condo linked to an energy lobbyist, and several other management and ethics issues.
Democrats spent much of Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies questioning Pruitt on those probes. Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, worded his responses carefully, often declining to give straight answers.
However, the verbal sparring could offer clues about future investigations. Many of the probes Pruitt now faces stem directly from inquiries by Democrats to government watchdogs.
Here are seven exchanges between Pruitt and senators, led by Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, that may have planted the seeds for further investigations.
Round-the-clock security for Pruitt has cost taxpayers about $3 million, an expense the EPA has justified by saying the beefed-up protection was recommended by security personnel. A report by the EPA's inspector general has since showed that Pruitt himself requested 24-hour protection. Asked about that report, Pruitt repeatedly refused to state clearly whether or not he had actually made the request. He instead stressed that he was not the person who actually approved the constant protection.
Pruitt asked his security detail to use lights and sirens in government vehicles when he was running late, according to a staffer who was allegedly reassigned after refusing to approve first-class travel requests for Pruitt. On Wednesday, Pruitt said he could not recall ever asking his staff to flash lights or blare sirens. Udall then presented an internal EPA email from Pruitt's former head of security saying "Administrator encourages the use" of lights and sirens. Two Senate Democrats on Wednesday asked the agency's inspector general to investigate the tenure of Pruitt's former head of security, Pasquale Perrotta.
Emails released this week showed that EPA political appointees were involved in delaying the release of a Health and Human Services report on chemicals linked to water contamination near U.S. military bases. Trump staffers were concerned the report would be a "public relations nightmare" for the EPA and the Department of Defense. Pruitt initially did not address the allegations of slow-walking the HHS report. When pressed by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., he said, "I was not aware that there had been some holding back of the report."
Pruitt confirmed news reports that he is establishing a legal defense fund due to the many allegations of ethics violations leveled against him. On Wednesday, Pruitt said the fund would not accept donations from lobbyists or companies with business before the EPA. However, when asked whether he would also reject anonymous donations, Pruitt said he is not responsible for soliciting donations and would heed the advice of the Government Accountability Office. Van Hollen told him he should not accept anonymous donations in that case, because the White House Office of Legal Counsel advises against it.
The EPA inspector general is investigating allegations that a former top aide to Pruitt, Samantha Dravis, was rarely in the office between November 2017 and January 2018. Asked about the alleged absence, Pruitt said he had interacted with her during those months and her schedule shows she held meetings during the period in question. When Udall asked if that means she was indeed at work the entire time, Pruitt said: "That's not what I said, senator. I said I interacted with her during that time frame and she was providing other services during that time frame as well."
A longtime aide who followed Pruitt from Oklahoma to Washington, Millan Hupp, conducted an apartment search for Pruitt while employed at the EPA. On Wednesday, Pruitt said Hupp, a friend of his wife, performed the search on her own time and was not paid. That arrangement constitutes a gift and violates federal employment rules, Udall claimed.
When asked whether he would turn over any communications with Hupp regarding the housing hunt, Pruitt said yes, but then revised his answer: "With the clarification, obviously, that it would be EPA emails. It would be, you know, emails from the agency. That's what I trust you're asking for." Udall said he wants all emails, including from EPA accounts. "As I indicated, from the agency, yes," Pruitt said.
EPA emails obtained by Politico indicate Pruitt's political appointees have been screening Freedom of Information Act requests. Questioned by Udall whether the EPA imposed a political review process for FOIA inquiries, Pruitt said, "Not to my knowledge, no." After clarifying his question, Udall once again asked Pruitt whether he had imposed a political review process. Pruitt said, "I'm not entirely sure what I can say other than what I've said about that, senator."