April 26, 2018 / 2:57 PM / 7 months ago

CORRECTED-UPDATE 2-U.S. EPA chief Pruitt tells lawmakers ethics charges are distractions, lies

(Corrects to specify that second hearing will be in the House, not the Senate, paragraph 13)

By Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON, April 26 (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt told lawmakers during a heated congressional hearing on Thursday that allegations of ethical missteps plaguing his tenure are untrue and are intended to derail President Donald Trump’s agenda.

“Facts are facts and fiction is fiction,” the embattled agency chief told a House of Representatives panel. “And a lie doesn’t become true just because it appears in the front page of the newspaper.”

The hearings, ostensibly to discuss the EPA budget, pose a critical test for Pruitt as he seeks to avoid becoming the latest in a long list of Cabinet members and senior White House officials who have either quit or been fired by Trump.

Trump administration officials have become increasingly frustrated by news reports on Pruitt ranging from his spending on first-class air travel and security, to his rental of a room in a high-end Washington condo linked to an energy lobbyist.

“Much of what has been targeted at me and my team has been half truths or, at best, stories that have been so twisted that they do not resemble reality,” Pruitt testified.

“Let’s have no illusions about what is really going on here,” Pruitt added. “Those who attack the EPA and attack me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president’s agenda and undermine this administration’s priorities. I’m simply not going to let that happen.”

Some lawmakers scolded Pruitt, calling the alleged missteps troubling and impossible to ignore.

Democratic Representative Paul Tonko of New York ripped Pruitt for his “seemingly endless misconduct” and “what appears to be a propensity for grift.” Tonko criticized what he called “wasteful spending on luxury travel, personal security and, yes, office upgrades, to say nothing of his well-documented sweetheart rental from a lobbyist with business before EPA.”

Tonko also cited reports of Pruitt’s retaliation against EPA employees who have questioned his abuses and expenditures. “At the heart of all these issues is an apparent pattern of an administrator refusing accountability and putting personal and special interests ahead of the American people,” Tonko said.

‘INNUENDO AND MCCARTHYISM’

Representative David McKinley of West Virginia was among some Republican lawmakers expressing support for Pruitt, saying the hearing was a “classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism,” a reference to a 1950s-era campaign to root out communists.

Republican Joe Barton of Texas also offered Pruitt some support, saying, “You are not the first person to be the victim of ... for lack of a better term ... Washington politics.”

Pruitt is due to testify before another House panel later in the day.

The EPA has defended Pruitt’s spending on travel and security, saying it has been crucial to protecting him from public threats and ensuring he can conduct confidential work, and have also pointed out that Pruitt’s lease for the room in Washington was around market rate.

The tumult in the administration was underscored earlier on Thursday when Trump’s physician Ronny Jackson withdrew from consideration to head the Department of Veterans Affairs after allegations about misconduct mounted.

Pruitt has drawn praise from conservatives during his EPA tenure for rolling back Democratic former President Barack Obama’s policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other environmental regulations opposed by industry, as well as his role in Trump’s decision to abandon the 2015 Paris global climate change agreement.

Although Trump has expressed support for Pruitt for his work on scaling back environmental regulations, White House sources have told Reuters officials are worried about the flow of charges against him.

There are nearly a dozen pending investigations into Pruitt with the EPA inspector general, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the White House Office of Management and Budget, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives oversight committee.

Recent findings by the GAO, which said the EPA violated the law by installing a $43,000 secure soundproof booth in Pruitt’s office without notifying lawmakers first, are of particular concern, the White House sources said.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Wednesday that the White House was evaluating the allegations against Pruitt. “We expect the EPA administrator to answer for them,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers who oppose Pruitt’s regulatory rollbacks have seized on his scandals, with 170 of them calling for his resignation. In recent days, five Republican Congress members have joined their ranks in calling for his ouster. (Reporting By Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Will Dunham)

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