April 26, 2018 / 5:02 AM / 7 months ago

U.S. EPA chief Pruitt faces congressional grilling on spending, ethics

WASHINGTON, April 26 (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt will face tough questions from lawmakers in congressional budget hearings on Thursday over a long list of alleged ethical missteps plaguing his tenure.

The hearings will pose a critical test for Pruitt as the White House becomes increasingly frustrated by news reports on issues ranging from his heavy spending on first-class air travel and security, to his rental of a room in a Washington townhouse linked to an energy industry lobbyist.

Although President Donald Trump has expressed support for Pruitt for his work scaling back environmental regulations seen as overly burdensome to industry, White House sources have told Reuters that officials are becoming 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 “privacy booth” in Pruitt’s office without notifying lawmakers first, are of particular concern to the West Wing, the White House sources said.

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.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said that Pruitt intends to use the hearings as an “opportunity to reiterate the accomplishments of President Trump’s EPA, which includes: working to repeal (President Barack) Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, providing regulatory certainty, and declaring a war on lead - all while returning to Reagan-era staffing levels.”

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

Democratic lawmakers that 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.

“I don’t care how sound your policies are, you just can’t treat the taxpayers in this country the way he apparently has,” Republican Senator John Kennedy told Reuters.

“I would be embarrassed to fly first-class like that. And I understand he’s in a job, that he’s made enemies, but 20 body men is a bit much,” Kennedy said.

Some Republican lawmakers have said they would support oversight hearings for Pruitt, including the Senate environment committee chair, John Barrasso, and third-ranking Republican Senator John Thune.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at a news conference this week that he is still a Pruitt supporter but signaled that the EPA head’s Hill performance could determine if that support continued. “We’ll just see,” McConnell said. (Reporting By Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan; additional reporting by Steve Holland and Timothy Gardner; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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