Pruitt dodges blame – POLITICO

 In Politics

The EPA chief told lawmakers his staff made decisions on pricey security measures and pinned his troubles on President Donald Trump’s critics.

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Scott Pruitt may have handled his daylong congressional grilling well enough to salvage his job for now — but only after he blamed his torrent of scandals on staff, disavowed one of his top advisers and raised new questions about what he knew about massive raises awarded to some of his closest aides.

The Environmental Protection Agency administrator shrugged off responsibility Thursday for a $43,000 privacy booth and more than $100,000 in first-class flights, and even said he has no idea whether his chief policy adviser showed up for work at all during a three-month stretch.

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But the former Oklahoma attorney general stayed calm throughout the nearly six hours of questioning. And his televised performance brought no immediate complaints from the one person whose opinion matters — the media-obsessed president who has so far stuck with Pruitt despite a multitude of investigations and the exasperation of key White House staff.

“Let me be very clear: I have nothing to hide as its relates to how I’ve run the agency for the past 16 months,” Pruitt told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, the first of two panels to subject him to hours of questioning Thursday.

But he also didn’t offer enough specifics to satisfy Democratic lawmakers — and a few Republicans — who criticized the lavish spending, cozy relations with lobbyists and other controversies that have taken root on his watch. He pointedly refused to apologize, instead accusing his critics of trying to “derail” President Donald Trump’s policies.

Several Republican lawmakers who defended him during the hearings said he’d held his own against a barrage of Democratic complaints.

“I think he did well,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), adding, “I know him well enough to not believe that he’s deliberately done anything wrong or that he’s made decisions in an inappropriate or unethical manner.”

Still, Cole admitted any decision on Pruitt’s fate is in Trump’s hands.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said Pruitt merely tried to dodge accountability for actions such as a massive expansion of his personal security team, while sidestepping accusations that he had punished staffers who questioned whether he faces serious threats to his safety.

“He could have taken personal responsibility and really meant it,” McCollum told reporters after an afternoon hearing by a House Appropriations subcommittee, where she had told Pruitt he should resign. “Instead he messed up in that he got caught up in thinking he needed more security than he needed, and that when employees pushed back on him, he did retaliate.”

One aspect of Thursday’s testimony drew a notable amount of attention — Pruitt’s shifting explanations for what he knew, and when, about raises as high as 72 percent that went to some of his key aides.

Weeks ago, Pruitt told Fox News that he hadn’t known about the raises until after the fact, that he did not know who authorized them and that the aides should not have received them. But under lawmakers’ questioning Thursday, he acknowledged that he had authorized his chief of staff to award pay increases to the aides — but said he did not know how high they would be or that they would circumvent the White House’s disapproval.

“I was not aware of the amount, nor was I aware of the bypassing or the [Presidential Personnel Office] process not being respected,” Pruitt said, responding to a question from Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee.

An EPA spokesman later said Pruitt had given his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, blanket authorization to handle hiring and raises using the EPA’s power under a water law that didn’t require the White House’s sign-off.

Lawmakers didn’t ask — and Pruitt didn’t say — whether he would discipline Jackson for his handling of the raises.

A preliminary report from EPA’s inspector general has found that Jackson signed off on the pay hikes to Sarah Greenwalt, a Pruitt adviser who previously worked as his general counsel in the Oklahoma attorney general’s office, and Millan Hupp, a former “Team Pruitt Operations Director” who is now his director of scheduling and advance.

Pruitt also said he didn’t know whether one of his top aides, Samantha Dravis, had failed to show up for work for much or all of November through January, as Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) has alleged. His answer essentially abandoned a past statement by an EPA spokesman, who called the accusations “baseless and absurd.”

“I’m not aware that she did or did not appear for work. So that’s something that is being reviewed at this point,” Pruitt told lawmakers Thursday, referring to an inspector general decision to review her attendance.

Dravis, EPA’s associate administrator in charge of EPA’s Office of Policy until last week, was such a senior aide that she had traveled with Pruitt on official business in Morocco as recently as December. She also appears with him in a meeting photo that Pruitt’s EPA Twitter account tweeted Dec. 6.

Pruitt also blamed his staff for the controversial purchase and installation of the privacy booth in his office, and said he would have stopped it if he knew the cost. He said the installation came after he’d received a phone call “of a sensitive nature” and requested “access to secure communication.”

“I gave direction to my staff to address that, and out of that came a $43,000 expenditure that I did not approve,” he said. “If I’d known about it, I would have refused it.”

Pruitt did not single out the staff members he was blaming for the phone booth installation, but agency staffers have told POLITICO that those and other pricey expenditures were overseen by Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, the career employee who heads his security detail.

Even after surviving Thursday’s gauntlet, Pruitt is still facing numerous investigations from Congress, the White House and government watchdogs into his taxpayer-funded first-class travel; unprecedented, 24-hour security detail; and sweetheart rental deal with the wife of a lobbyist who sought to influence his agency. A senior EPA official said Thursday that high-level staffers including Jackson, Greenwalt and Perrotta are willing to sit for interviews with staff of the House Oversight Committee, which is carrying out one of the probes of Pruitt’s actions.

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, EPA distributed a 23-page document responding to various allegations.

Democrats ripped into him from the start, charging that Pruitt had put his own interests and political ambitions over the job of protecting the environment and human health, and he had shown he didn’t deserve the public trust.

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