WASHINGTON – Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was unapologetic about his leadership during the first of two Capitol Hill hearings Thursday but conceded that he had known in advance of an aide's pay hike – among the many controversies that have put his position on the line.
Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment for more than three hours, Pruitt repeatedly blamed his staff for spending decisions that have drawn intense criticism in recent months and denied that he had reassigned or demoted anyone who questioned those expenditures. Several EPA staffers – including Pruitt's former deputy chief of staff for operations, Kevin Chmielewski – have charged that they faced retaliation after challenging plans to spend taxpayer funds on first-class travel, office upgrades and other perks.
The administrator said he had no idea that his request to install a secure phone line in his office would lead to a customized private phone booth costing $43,000. The move to install biometric locks to his office was also made by aides, he said.
Shortly wrapping up his initial testimony, Pruitt moved over to the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies, where he again was pressed on how the phone booth came about. The decision to install it "should not have been made, and I would not have made the decision if I were aware of it." he maintained.
Referring more broadly to management and spending missteps at the agency, Pruitt told lawmakers, "If there are processes that have not been followed internally . . . I commit to make those changes prospectively."
Pruitt offered a few concessions under questioning by members of both parties in the back-to-back sessions. Speaking before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, he walked back previous denials of having any involvement in the salary discussion for agency senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt. She and another staffer got significant raises this spring over the objections of officials in the White House Personnel Office.
"I was aware of one of those individuals" was receiving a raise, Pruitt told Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Ill., one of just two Republicans on the panel who openly criticized some of his spending decisions.
Greenwalt received a 52 percent increase last month, while EPA's director of scheduling and advance Millan Hupp got a 33 percent boost. The Washington Post first reported last week that Greenwalt had emailed a colleague in EPA's human resources department that the raises had been "discussed" with the administrator in advance. Each woman had worked for Pruitt in Oklahoma before coming to Washington.
Earlier, when Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., asked Pruitt if he had authorized his chief of staff Ryan Jackson to sign the raises, Pruitt had replied, "I was not aware of the amount, nor was I aware of the [Personnel Office] process not being respected." Both raises were reversed after reports of them became public.
Pruitt spent the hearing attributing the vast majority of allegations about his ethics and management to policy critics, even as he said he had "to take the responsibility to make changes to the agency" based on the "learning curve" he and others faced.
"Those who have attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to derail the president's agenda. I'm not going to let that happen." Pruitt said. "A lie doesn't become true just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper."
Despite the lengthy morning back-and-forth, it was unclear whether Pruitt's responses altered any lawmakers' views of his job performance. While Costello and Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., bore in on his spending on security and travel, other Republicans praised his policy choices. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., opened the session by telling Pruitt that "I am generally pleased with the direction that you're taking at the EPA" but that he would have to address the charges of wasteful spending and ethical misconduct.
"It is no secret that there had been many stories in the press about the management and operations of the agency and your dealings with potentially regulated sectors," Shimkus said. "I consider much of this narrative to be a distraction, but on this committee cannot ignore. I look forward to hearing your side of the story on the rumors and allegations you're facing."
Tonko, the subcommittee's top Democrat, delivered a harsh fusillade as Pruitt looked on impassively with a few of his top aides seated behind him. After ticking off several charges about the administrator's personal financial dealings and professional decisions, Tonko said, "And in almost all cases, the more we have learned, the worse they get."
He concluded by telling Pruitt, "You have failed as a steward of American taxpayer dollars and of the environment."
And Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the Energy and Commerce's top Democrat, quickly informed him, "You are unfit to hold public office, and you are undeserving of the public trust," adding that with any other White House, he would "be long gone."
Repeatedly, Democrats pushed Pruitt for specific details. Pallone pressed Pruitt on whether he had retaliated against employees who questioned some of his spending decisions. "Has it always been your practice to fire people who disagree with you?" he asked.
Pruitt rebutted the charge. "I don't ever recall a conversation to that end," he said.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, mounted a defense as he focused on some of the controversies that have put Pruitt's job at risk.
"You're not the first person to be the victim, for lack of a better term, of Washington politics," Barton told him. Referring to the fact that the administrator frequently traveled in first class during his first year at EPA, Barton inquired, "Is it illegal to fly first class?"
Pruitt said that those tickets had been approved by the agency' travel and security offices, prompting Barton to reply, "But it's not illegal. It may look bad, but it's not illegal."
Rep. David McKinley, R-W. Va., described the myriad allegations Pruitt faces as "a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism," adding that he was disappointed his colleagues across the aisle couldn't restrict their questions to ones about policy. "Some just can't resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand," he accused.
And Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., went further. "The greatest sin you've committed, if any, is you've actually done what President (Donald) Trump ran on, won on and what he's commissioned you to do," he told Pruitt.
Pruitt remained calm and measured throughout both hearings, even during the most direct grilling about his expenditures and ethics decisions. But he also avoided the "yes or no" questions from some lawmakers and steadfastly refused to acknowledge any personal wrongdoing.
Still, the administrator changed his description of the privacy phone booth during an exchange with Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. Previously, Pruitt had likened the booth to a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) that he needed for secure conversations with the White House and other officials. The Government Accountability Office recently issued a report that did not assess the booth's security merits but said Pruitt violated federal spending laws by spending more than $5,000 upgrading his office without notifying Congress in advance.
Pruitt conceded that the phone booth "is actually not a SCIF," even as he rejected the GAO's conclusion. He also acknowledged that he has only used the booth sparingly. "It's for confidential communications, and it's rare."
At times, Pruitt professed to be unfamiliar with some of the technology his aides had installed in his office.
"What's a biometric lock?" Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., asked.
"I'm not entirely sure," the administrator replied. "I just put a code in."
While Democrats sounded exasperated at times – Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., told Pruitt at one point he had given her "a lousy answer"-the proceedings were relatively calm.
During the Energy and Commerce hearing, protesters stood in the room silently holding up signs saying, "Mr. Corruption" with a picture of Pruitt. Some sported green T-shirts reading, "Impeach Pruitt."
The administrator had spent most of the past week rehearsing answers aimed at deflecting some of the most serious allegations about his ethics and management decisions. Several staffers said he huddled privately with his closest aides, outlining plans to blame others for some decisions, such as the large pay raises given two staffers who moved with him from Oklahoma to Washington.
But in the face of the multitude of investigations over his leadership, by the EPA inspector general, the House oversight committee, the Government Accountability Office and the White House, Pruitt's status seems far from secure.
According to senior administration officials, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney has expanded an inquiry into the secure phone booth to cover other costly expenditures, including Pruitt's tickets on first-class flights and stays at boutique hotels.
In addition, the White House Counsel's Office is examining allegations of unethical behavior, among them Pruitt's decision to rent part of a Capitol Hill condo for $50 a night from the lobbyist and her husband, who had business before the agency.
Inside the White House, the EPA chief has lost the backing of many senior aides, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, and communications officials, lawyers and Cabinet affairs officials, whose calls he ignores. He is not interested in "turning the page," as one senior administration official put it Wednesday.
Pruitt, for his part, believes the White House is leaking damaging details about him and is "out to get him," in the words of a Pruitt ally.
Trump is not ready to remove Pruitt from his post, according to individuals who have spoken with him, but he has become more concerned as new allegations have continued to surface.