News & Politics

Democrats Say EPA Chief Pruitt Admitted to Breaking Law in Senate Hearing

Federal officials are prohibited by law from receiving gifts of more than $10 from employees.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Scandal-ridden Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt faced his third congressional hearing in less than a month Wednesday, admitting to an act that Democrats say broke federal law, The New York Times reported.

In the hearing, which was supposed to be a routine budget hearing conducted by the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the environment, Pruitt admitted that one of his employees, Millan Hupp, had worked for free searching for a place for him to live in Washington, DC. The leading Democrat on the subcommittee, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, said the free labor constituted a gift. Federal officials are prohibited by law from receiving gifts of more than $10 from employees.

Pruitt also admitted to establishing a legal defense fund to pay for 12 federal investigations into his management of and spending practices at the EPA.

Further, he made a claim that directly contradicted an email cited by Udall, CNN reported.

In the 2017 email, released Wednesday by Democratic Senators Tom Carper (DE) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), former EPA security chief Pasquale "Nino" Perrotta wrote agency staffers that Pruitt preferred his motorcade use lights and sirens for non-emergency drives.

Pruitt insisted after being pressed by Udall that the use of lights and sirens was not his personal preference but rather agency policy.

When asked if he requested the use of lights and sirens, he responded, "No, I don't recall that happening," CNN reported.

Like Pruitt's previous testimonies, Wednesday's questions focused more on Pruitt's spending decisions and less on the actual deregulatory policies he has implemented as EPA head.

This shift in focus was pointed out by subcommittee chair Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

"I'm being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on housing and security and travel," she said, according to The New York Times. "Instead of seeing articles about efforts to return your agency to its core mission, I'm reading articles about your interactions with the industries that you regulate."

Udall did issue criticisms hinting that Pruitt's ethical missteps—such as renting a condo from energy lobbyists at below-market rates—and pro-industry policy decisions were connected.

"You have used your office to enrich yourself at the expense of the American taxpayer and public health and such abuses have led to several investigations," Udall said, as CNN reported.

After Murkowski's opening criticism, Republican senators did not push back on Pruitt's answers.

Pruitt vaguely acknowledged that he "would not make the same decisions again," but shifted blame for some of his spending missteps, such as the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth, onto EPA rules that he said did not adequately control for spending abuses. He has since instituted a policy that any expenditure over $5,000 will be reviewed by the EPA's chief of staff and chief financial officer, The New York Times reported.

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Olivia Rosane is a London-based poet and writer. Follow her on Twitter @orosane.