EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Prepares For Questions On Ethics Allegations

Apr 25, 2018
Originally published on April 25, 2018 9:21 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill tomorrow, and it could be a make-or-break appearance. It'll be his first time in front of lawmakers since a string of allegations of ethical misconduct.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Pruitt has also come under fire for flying first class at taxpayers' expense.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Of these raises given to two of his political aides.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: A condo he rented from the wife of a top energy lobbyist.

SHAPIRO: Even some of the Pruitt's staunchest allies are expressing concern, and White House officials say they're reviewing the allegations against him.

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HOGAN GIDLEY: We've seen the reports, and it raises questions. And the EPA, quite frankly, and Mr. Pruitt are going to have to answer those questions in short order.

SHAPIRO: White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley there speaking to Morning Edition today. NPR's Jennifer Ludden is here to help us understand how we got to this point. Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: It's a real turnaround for Pruitt. He's been an MVP in the Trump administration apart from all of these scandals.

LUDDEN: Totally, totally - big turnaround. I mean, there's no one who so embodies President Trump's whole political ethos and agenda here, right? We heard from Trump on the campaign trail over and over, I'm going to help those coal miners. And he got the man to do it.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to bring those miners back. You're going to be so proud of your president. You're going to be so proud of your country.

LUDDEN: On the big issue of climate change, which was so important to the Obama administration - both of them highly skeptical about climate science.

SHAPIRO: And while people can point to promises that Trump has not kept, whether it's a wall or repealing the Affordable Care Act, when it comes to the EPA, Pruitt has done a lot of what Trump promised.

LUDDEN: Busy, busy year - I mean, dozens of small regulations most people have never heard of. But then there's the big ones. He has really worked aggressively. He's rolled back the Clean Power Plan, which was Obama's signature climate move to kind of rein in emissions from power plants.

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SCOTT PRUITT: The president, by his signature today, is rejecting the narrative that this country cannot be both pro-energy and pro-environment.

LUDDEN: He has worked to get rid of a big clean water rule that farmers and the building industry just really hated. Recently, you know, he rolled back a fuel economy rule for cars, just yesterday a new rule that would limit the scientific research the EPA can use when it makes policy. You just know Trump really does not want to fire Scott Pruitt.

SHAPIRO: And yet there have been so many allegations against Pruitt. I can't even ask you to name all of them because it would take more time than we have.

LUDDEN: Yeah, too much time.

SHAPIRO: But it started a few months ago with first-class travel then round-the-clock security detail and just snowballed from there.

LUDDEN: Right, right. Some of the highlights - a $43,000 soundproof phone booth that he had built in his office. The GAO has ruled that violated federal spending rules. There were huge pay raises. One was over $50,000 to a couple of really young staffers he brought with him from Oklahoma. He said he didn't know about that, but there is an email that surfaced that suggests he did. We've also learned several staffers who raised questions about all of the spending were reassigned or demoted.

I think a real turning point in this drip, drip, drip was a Fox News interview a few weeks ago which Pruitt probably thought would be a fairly friendly venue. But he took a grilling, and he got in hot water talking about a condo that he's rented here in D.C. at a cut-rate deal.

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ED HENRY: You're renting it from the wife of a lobbyist.

PRUITT: Yeah, who has no business before this this agency.

HENRY: Hold on a second. So...

PRUITT: Who has no business...

HENRY: Mr. Hart is at Williams & Jensen - right? - major lobbying firm. ExxonMobil is a client.

PRUITT: Mr. Hart has no clients...

HENRY: Does ExxonMobil have business before you, Sir?

PRUITT: Mr. Hart has no clients that has business before this agency.

LUDDEN: That may not be true. Politico reported last week that this lobbyist, Stephen Hart, did lobby the EPA while Pruitt was there last year. And on Friday, he left his job.

SHAPIRO: And through all of this, President Trump has backed Pruitt.

LUDDEN: Yes. Trump has stood by him. You know, after a whole week when a lot of these allegations were first coming out - every day there was something new - Trump traveled to West Virginia, and he told reporters, look; the guy is doing a great job.

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TRUMP: I just left coal and energy country. They love Scott Pruitt.

LUDDEN: But of course the White House does say they're looking into these allegations. And this week, even a longtime supporter of Pruitt's expressed some doubt - Senator James Inhofe, who is from his home state of Oklahoma and has been a real mentor. Here's what he told CNN.

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JAMES INHOFE: There are a lot of serious allegations against him that I would want to check out, and I'm doing it.

SHAPIRO: And so now Pruitt is about to come before lawmakers and answer some pretty tough questions, probably even from Republicans. What are you looking for tomorrow?

LUDDEN: Well, as you say, what do the Republicans say? We're going to be looking to see the questions they ask and what kind of answers Scott Pruitt can give and if it's going to be enough to keep his job.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.