EPA Chief Pruitt Faces Tough Questions On Capitol Hill

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Scott Pruitt was supposed to spend Thursday on Capitol Hill discussing the Environmental Protection Agency's budget. That may seem an easy task compared to the grilling he's likely to get instead over myriad allegations of improper spending and ethics violations.

It's the first time Pruitt will appear before lawmakers since weeks of accusations prompted a string of investigations — by the EPA Inspector General's office, at the GAO and in Congress. By this week, even staunch allies like Sen. James Inhofe, a Pruitt mentor from his home state of Oklahoma, were expressing concern.

"There are people out there that will embellish in whatever way [it] will serve their purposes to get rid of this guy, and he's accomplished a lot," Inhofe told CNN. "But I do want to check out all of the allegations against him."

Deputy White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley tells NPR that the reports of alleged misconduct raise questions, "and the EPA, quite frankly, and Mr. Pruitt are going to have to answer those questions in short order."

There are questions about why Pruitt sanctioned $43,000 for a soundproof phone booth in his EPA office; the GAO has found that violated federal spending rules. He may also be asked about exceedingly generous pay raises for two young staffers he brought from Oklahoma; his greatly expanded round-the-clock security detail; his first class travel while on public business; and why several staffers who raised questions about such spending were demoted or reassigned.

Another controversy is the $50 a night condo room Pruitt rented from the wife of an energy lobbyist, paying only for the nights he stayed there. Pruitt had said lobbyist Steven Hart had no clients with EPA business, but last week Hart's firm disclosed that he had attended a meeting at the agency last summer. Hart has stepped down from his job.

Try as he might, Pruitt hasn't been able to make these issues go away. "New information continues to come out about behavior at the EPA," says Jerry Taylor, president of the libertarian Niskanen Center. "All of it is incredibly disturbing and utterly unprecedented."

Republicans are getting tired of it. Last week Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, wrote Pruitt a stern letter asking him to account for the four different email addresses he uses at EPA.

And House Oversight Committee Chair Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., has mocked Pruit's claim that he had to fly first class to avoid belligerent people in coach.

"The notion that I've gotta fly first class because I don't want people to be mean to me?" he said to Fox News' Chris Wallace. "You need to go into another line of work if you don't want people to be mean to you. Like maybe a monk."

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox says Thursday's hearings are "an opportunity to reiterate the accomplishments of President Trump's EPA."

That list is also long. Pruitt has been aggressive in starting to roll back a number of Obama-era environmental rules, including the Clean Power Plan that aimed to regulate carbon emissions, a clean water rule that farmers and builders consider a burden and a fuel economy standard meant to lower tailpipe emissions.

This week Pruitt proposed a new rule to limit the research EPA considers. Scientists decry the move, warning it would hurt policymaking on everything from air pollution to toxic waste and pesticides.

President Trump has stood by Pruitt for weeks, tweeting that he's "doing a great job." But he's fired other Cabinet members he had recently praised.

Scott Pruitt's fate at EPA may depend on the answers he gives lawmakers Thursday, and whether they satisfy the growing number of people with questions about his actions in office.

"These hearings are clearly make-and-break hearings for Scott Pruitt," says Ana Unruh Cohen of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Pruitt will be hoping to satisfy the many questions from lawmakers — but his main audience will be down the street, at the White House.

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