Scott Pruitt reacts while testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on May 16.

Scott Pruitt reacts while testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on May 16. Andrew Harnik/AP

EPA Chief Sets Up a Legal Defense Fund

Scott Pruitt said he will follow White House advice on donor disclosure.

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt on Wednesday acknowledged to senators that he has set up a legal defense fund to address his ethics issues now being examined in more than a dozen investigations.

Pruitt confirmed existence of the fund set up by his longtime attorney under questioning from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who accused Pruitt of not “taking the public trust seriously” when he attributes the uproar over his ethical lapses to opposition to the administration’s  environmental policies.

During a contentious budget hearing Pruitt assured senators on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment that donations to the fund will be made public and that it won’t accept gifts from lobbyists with business before his agency. Pressed on whether it would accept anonymous donations, Pruitt said it would follow recommendations of the White House counsel, which, Van Hollen noted, has discouraged anonymous gifts to such funds.

The legal help the administrator enlisted could involve an array of accusations that came up at the budget hearing, ranging from his first-class travel and pricey personal security detail, acceptance of discounted lodging from a lobbyist, his installation of a sound-proof booth in his office, unorthodox pay raises to aides, an allegedly no-show employee, and his side trips to entertainment and political events.

Most recently, the EPA’s inspector general confirmed to Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., that he has opened a new probe into Pruitt’s use of multiple email accounts for possible violations of the federal records act.

Pruitt testified on Wednesday about progress he believes the Trump administration is making on the environment in support of a fiscal 2019 budget that cuts $620 million over fiscal 2018, mostly in research and direct aid to states. He drew praise from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., for “taking the boot of regulation off our workers,” and from acting Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., for a Superfund cleanup in Pascagoula.

But his budget was declared “dead on arrival” by ranking member Tom Udall, D-N.M., who noted the irony in Pruitt’s call for a 10 percent cut to the IG’s budget.

Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also called many of the proposed cuts “unsustainable” and said she plans to restore them. When Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., complained that the EPA Superfund program is short on staff and resources, Pruitt said he’s “not always as successful with [the Office of Management and Budget] as he would like to be,” implying that the White House was to blame for the funding shortfalls.

Murkowski invited Pruitt to respond to the ethics accusations, which have produced somewhere between 14 and 16 investigations, by the Democrats’ count. Murkowski said she was concerned that Pruitt’s “important policy efforts are being overshadowed because of a series of issues related to you and your management of the agency. Instead of being asked about the work that you are doing on [the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rulemaking], the Clean Power Plan, or the Superfund program, I am constantly being asked to comment on security, housing, and travel. Instead of seeing articles about your efforts to return the agency to its core mission, I am reading about your interactions with representatives of the industries you regulate.”

Udall, who repeated his demand that Pruitt resign, said he “can’t separate the scandals from the policy rollbacks,” accusing Pruitt of enriching himself and his friends while running the agency in a way that is a “betrayal” of the American people. “Your leadership at EPA is disastrous” even to many Republicans, Udall said. “This is the exact swamp President Trump has tried to get rid of. “

When quizzed on such issues as who requested his 24/7 security, Pruitt generally avoided the yes-or-no answers his Democratic inquisitors sought, though he agreed to provide documents.

The spending on the privacy booth, which the Government Accountability Office determined was a violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, must be addressed in a mandatory report to Congress, Udall told him. But Pruitt said, “It is my understanding the agency provided that information to Congress.”

He denied accusations that a key staffer had spent government time contacting real estate agents to find him housing, saying that she was a friend of his wife’s who helped after hours. If she wasn’t paid overtime, Udall charged, then “it was a gift and a violation of federal law.”

When asked about an April 13 tweet from EPA’s public affairs office mocking Democratic senators who opposed an EPA nominee, Pruitt said “that should never have occurred,” though he declined to apologize.

And he said his own staff investigation had found no truth to a charge that his public affairs staff had “shopped negative stories” about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in order to “distract” from Pruitt’s own troubles.

Pruitt used his testimony to compare his EPA favorably with Obama’s in reversing a plan to close regional offices and labs. “We will continue to prioritize efforts that save taxpayer dollars through space consolidation and essential renovations to reduce and optimize our physical footprint,” he said. “We will work with states and tribes to target resources to core statutory work and provide flexibility to address particular priorities and concerns. As careful stewards of taxpayer resources, we will examine our programs for those that are unnecessary, redundant, or that have served their purpose and accomplished their mission or are outside EPA’s statutory mandates.”

He also described EPA’s just announced establishment of an Office of Continuous Improvement, to track permitting and rulemaking using metrics to better comply with statutory deadlines.

But Udall pounced on that as well, complaining that congressional committees should be notified of such “reorganizations.” But Pruitt said it was “an internal” move, not a reorganization.