Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was grilled by lawmakers Thursday on Capitol Hill about a slew of scandals over his spending habits and ties to industry lobbyists. Pruitt faces more than a half-dozen investigations. Among the scandals, he paid only $50 a night to live in a Capitol Hill condo owned by the wife of a prominent Washington energy lobbyist whose firm represents a roster of fossil fuel companies. Pruitt had a $43,000 soundproof phone booth installed in his office, which a government watchdog says violated spending laws. Pruitt had the EPA spend $3 million on his security detail, including 18 full-time agents. Pruitt routinely travels first- or business-class, reportedly because Pruitt was confronted by economy-class customers angry over his policies. For more, we speak with Emily Atkin, a staff writer at The New Republic. Her latest pieces include “Scott Pruitt Is Forced to Confront Reality” and “The EPA Is Acting Like Big Tobacco.” We also speak with Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was grilled by lawmakers Thursday on Capitol Hill after a slew of scandals over his spending habits and ties to industry lobbyists. Pruitt faces more than a half-dozen investigations. Among the scandals, he paid only $50 a night to live in a Capitol Hill condo owned by the wife of a prominent Washington energy lobbyist whose firm represents a roster of fossil fuel companies. Pruitt had a $43,000 soundproof phone booth installed in his office, which the Government Accounting Office says was illegal, that it violated spending laws. Pruitt had the EPA spend $3 million on his security detail, including 18 full-time agents. Pruitt routinely travels first- or business-class, reportedly because Pruitt was confronted by economy-class customers angry over his policies. On Thursday, lawmakers demanded Pruitt’s resignation. They pressed him on reports he has retaliated against employees who raise concerns about, among other things, his spending habits. This is New Jersey Democratic Congressmember Frank Pallone.
REP. FRANK PALLONE: It has been reported that at least five EPA employees were recently reassigned, demoted or otherwise retaliated against, after they raised concerns about your spending. Is that correct? Yes or no?
SCOTT PRUITT: I don’t ever recall a conversation to that end.
REP. FRANK PALLONE: All right, well, I’ll take that as a yes.
AMY GOODMAN: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt claimed during Thursday’s hearing that allegations of unethical behavior are untrue and intended to derail President Trump’s agenda.
SCOTT PRUITT: Much of what has been targeted towards me and my team has been half-truths or, at best, stories that have been so twisted that they do not resemble reality. And I’m here, and I welcome the chance to be here, to set the record straight in these areas. But let’s have no illusions about what is really going on here. Those who attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president’s agenda and undermine this administration’s priorities. I am simply not going to let that happen.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Emily Atkin, a staff writer at The New Republic. Her latest pieces include “Scott Pruitt Is Forced to Confront Reality” and “The EPA Is Acting Like Big Tobacco.” Also with us, from Berkeley, California, is Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club.
Emily Atkin, let’s begin with you. Talk about yesterday’s hearing. Talk about the allegations against Pruitt and the more than half-dozen inspector general investigations of the sitting EPA administrator.
EMILY ATKIN: Sure. Yesterday was sort of a master’s class in the art of deflection and denial of, like you said, the fact that there are a dozen investigations going on regarding the administrator’s behavior. Scott Pruitt sat in front of Congress for six hours yesterday and basically said he either wasn’t responsible for the scandals that are facing him, or he didn’t know about them at all, or they were being blown out of proportion. I don’t think that he—I mean, he didn’t—
AMY GOODMAN: He didn’t know about where he lived, that he was paying $50 a night to an energy lobbyist family to stay in an apartment where, what, if he doesn’t stay there that night, he doesn’t have to pay? Fifty dollars a night.
EMILY ATKIN: Well, his deflection for that was different. You know, his deflection for that was, “Well, the EPA ethics counsel said that this was fine.” What he didn’t know about was, say, whether or not his staff that had been relocated was a retaliation for anything. He said, “Oh, well, that was just because they had performance issues.” He didn’t know whether or not there was a $43,000 soundproof booth installed in his office. He didn’t know it was that expensive. It was, like I said, a master’s class in deflection. And I don’t think he actually swayed anybody that wasn’t already convinced either of his guilt in all of these matters or of his innocence.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Democratic Congressmember Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico questioning Scott Pruitt.
REP. BEN RAY LUJÁN: Mr. Pruitt, today you repeatedly blamed your chief of staff, your chief counsel, career officials and others. Yes or no, are you the EPA administrator?
SCOTT PRUITT: I said that in my opening statement, Congressman. And I didn’t blame anyone. I just simply shared facts with you as a—in this committee.
REP. BEN RAY LUJÁN: Mr. Administrator, it’s just a simple yes-or-no question, sir. Are you the EPA administrator?
SCOTT PRUITT: I said in my opening statement that I take responsibility. I’ve made changes historically, and making changes going forward. And I simply have not failed to take responsibility. I have just simply recited the facts of what’s occurred.
REP. BEN RAY LUJÁN: It’s a simple question, Mr. Pruitt. Are you the EPA administrator?
SCOTT PRUITT: Yes.
REP. BEN RAY LUJÁN: Just to be clear: Do you run the EPA?
SCOTT PRUITT: I do.
REP. BEN RAY LUJÁN: Yes or no, are you responsible for the many, many scandals plaguing the EPA?
SCOTT PRUITT: I’ve responded to many of those questions here today, with facts and information.
REP. BEN RAY LUJÁN: Are you able to answer that in yes or no?
SCOTT PRUITT: That’s not a yes-or-no answer, Congressman.
REP. BEN RAY LUJÁN: It’s pretty simple that it’s a yes-or-no answer here. There is clear concern with what’s been happening, not just by the entire Congress. And I appreciate you being here today, but these questions need to be asked and answered.
SCOTT PRUITT: And we have answered them today.
REP. BEN RAY LUJÁN: And you are not the only one that has been doing these ugly things, these horrific things, these scandal-plagued things in this administration. And I hope that this is one of many hearings that this committee will have, so we can get to the bottom of this and make sure taxpayers are made whole.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Democratic Congressman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico questioning Scott Pruitt. Michael Brune, you head the Sierra Club. Your major concerns about Scott Pruitt, and were they addressed yesterday in this hearing?
MICHAEL BRUNE: No, of course not. Our concerns about Scott Pruitt have not ever been addressed, because what underlies or what’s underneath all of these personal scandals, whether it’s the first-class flights all around the world or the 18-person security detail that gets dragged to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl—all of this stuff—the pasta-making class in Italy, the raises for EPA officials, the Republican opposition research on to his own staff—all of these things are, frankly, a lot less important than the things that Scott Pruitt is doing in his professional capacity to undermine the safeguards that protect our air and our water and our communities and our climate.
Scott Pruitt personally supported the Dakota Access pipeline, supported the Keystone XL pipeline, supported the pulling out of the Paris climate accords. Scott Pruitt has personally supported the undermining of the Clean Power Plan, which would limit the amount of air and water pollution coming from coal-fired power plants. He has supported and he’s personally lobbied for gas pipelines to be built, gas export terminals to be built. He’s personally supported the rolling back of regulations that would limit the amount of methane pollution coming from power plants and pipelines.
He is the most corrupt EPA administrator that we’ve ever had in our country’s history. We now have 200 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, in the House and the Senate, who are calling for his resignation, and it’s because he is undermining the quality of our air, of our water, of our climate and our communities, and he is unfit to serve as EPA administrator.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about—I want to play for you Frank Pallone, congressmember, Democrat, from New Jersey.
REP. FRANK PALLONE: In October 2017, right before EPA abandoned the rule making, Drew Wynne, a 31-year-old small business owner in South Carolina, died while using methylene chloride. Drew’s brother is here today, and I want to thank him for traveling here from South Carolina and continuing to advocate for a ban of this deadly chemical. Were you or others at EPA aware of Drew Wynne’s death when the agency abandoned the ban of this deadly chemical? Yes or no? Were you aware of his death?
SCOTT PRUITT: I think it’s important, Congressman, to know that we have a proposed ban in place that is being considered that we’re taking comments on. We haven’t finished that process.
REP. FRANK PALLONE: Yeah, well, obviously, you’re not going to admit whether you know about Drew’s death. Unfortunately, in February, another 31-year-old man, Joshua Atkins, died using a methylene chloride paint stripper to refinish his bike. I learned about Joshua from his mother, Lauren, who sent me a deeply touching letter. And I would ask unanimous consent, Mr. Chairman, to put that letter into the record, in which she states her hope that her son will be the last to die from this chemical.
COMMITTEE CHAIR: Can we make sure we see the letter?
REP. FRANK PALLONE: Yes, I’ll give it to you right now, Mr. Chairman. Again, Mr. Pruitt, your deregulatory agenda costs lives—real people with names, with brothers, with mothers. You have the power to finalize the ban of methylene chloride now and prevent more deaths, but you haven’t done it. Do you have anything to say to these families at this point?
SCOTT PRUITT: Congressman, as I was trying to indicate earlier, there is a proposed ban in place that we took comment on, that we are reviewing presently. There has been no decision at this time.
REP. FRANK PALLONE: All right, well, obviously you have nothing to say to these families. Look, you say you’re going to do something, but these chemicals are still on the shelves.
AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Congressmember Frank Pallone questioning Pruitt at yesterday’s hearing. Emily Atkin of The New Republic, talk about the cases he is talking about here.
EMILY ATKIN: These were the most effective moments of yesterday’s hearing, I think. What Congressman Pallone is talking about are the dozens of deaths of Americans who have inhaled paint strippers or other household items that contain methylene chloride. And what he’s talking about is, there was a proposed ban of methylene chloride in place, put in place by the Obama administration right before Trump took office. A few months later, Scott Pruitt’s EPA delayed that proposed ban, and, as you heard him say, they’re reviewing it.
And that’s happened across the board at EPA. What Scott Pruitt has done, in terms of his policy actions, is he has delayed regulations in an attempt to either repeal or weaken them later, but just put a hold on these processes. And Pallone is talking about people who died using something that they were able to buy at a regular Home Depot or something like that. And he’s asking, “Do you have anything to say to these people?”
And Scott Pruitt—I don’t think he was prepared for those questions. I mean, he had a 23-page document preparing him for questions about his ethical scandals, his alleged corruption, his alleged taxpayer waste. I think he was less prepared to deal with questions like these from Pallone that cited real people affected by his policies. And you actually saw members of Congress do this all day. You saw people bring up heads of Native American tribes that are relocating due to sea level rise, and asking, “Do you have anything to say to them about why you’re delaying climate change action? Do you have anything to say to them?”
Scott Pruitt recently said that he thought, well, maybe climate change will actually be good for civilization. There was one congressmember who said, “What are you going to say to the shell fishermen in my district who can’t make a living anymore because of ocean acidification? Is he going to flourish?” And Scott Pruitt did his thing that he does, which is he deflects. He starts talking about the policy. He says “with respect to” a lot. He does sort of the opposite thing that Trump does, which is Trump talks very simply to try and give you the point, so the common person can understand it, whereas Scott Pruitt goes into overtalking to almost confuse you and act like he is saying something when he’s actually not saying anything.
AMY GOODMAN: This week, Pruitt had a transparency event where he didn’t invite the press. But I wanted to turn to Democratic Congressman Tony Cardenas of California questioning Scott Pruitt.
REP. TONY CARDENAS: The list of your failures is long, and your wasteful spending is an embarrassment to government and very offensive to the taxpayers who pay all of our salaries. This administration is so packed with unethical behavior, but yet, at the same time, you have to understand that your power directly impacts health and well-being of vulnerable populations in this country—seniors, our children, our sick and our disabled.
It’s tempting to ask why you spent nearly $68,000 on hotels and travel from August through February—just in five months—and $50,000 in modifications to your office, including a privacy booth that cost over $43,000 and an oversized desk with ornate woodworking that cost over $2,000. But we already know that some of these purchases were made in violation of federal laws.
When you appeared before the subcommittee in December, this subcommittee, you said that your phone booth is used for classified conversations and sensitive conversations with the White House. Has this $43,000 phone booth—has it been certified as a SCIF? And also, so, using it for—are you using it for classified conversations? Is that appropriate?
SCOTT PRUITT: It has not been certified as a SCIF, and it does provide protection on confidential communications. And I think it’s important, Congressman, to know where this originated. I did have a phone call that came in of a sensitive nature, and I did not have access to secure communications. I gave direction to my staff to address that, and out of that came a $43,000 expenditure that I did not approve. That is something that should not occur in the future.
REP. TONY CARDENAS: OK, so you’re not taking responsibility for the $43,000 that was spent on your office? You’re saying that staff did it without your knowledge?
SCOTT PRUITT: Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through.
REP. TONY CARDENAS: OK, so you were not involved in that, is what you’re saying.
SCOTT PRUITT: I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000. And if I had known about it, Congressman, I would have refused it.
AMY GOODMAN: Emily Atkin, your response to what he’s talking about here in response to Congressmember Cardenas? The transparency event where he didn’t invite the press?
EMILY ATKIN: Sure. I mean, it’s incredible to hear him say that career employees did this at the EPA, with regard to his $43,000 soundproof booth. What he’s saying is not only did he not approve that expenditure, knowing that Scott Pruitt has been so obsessed with his own security and secure communications, sweeping his office with bugs for listening devices, he’s saying neither he nor his political staff—so the people that he brought in—had anything to do with that, when, at the same time, you mentioned the transparency event where reporters weren’t invited. Secrecy and security have been a hallmark of Scott Pruitt’s EPA, and it’s sort of mind-blowing to hear him say that he had nothing to do with something that clearly is so core to him.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, the Government Accounting Office said this was illegal, because expenditures of more than $5,000 had to be approved. This was $43,000. There was a soundproof booth in the EPA already on another floor, and this one hasn’t even been certified as soundproof. But, Michael Brune, if you could talk more about his record and how you feel the Republicans versus the Democrats dealt with Pruitt yesterday? And are you calling for his resignation?
MICHAEL BRUNE: Oh, we’re most definitely calling for his resignation. He is unfit to serve as EPA administrator. And we’ve been pleased by the small number of Republicans thus far in the Senate, but an increasingly large number of Republicans in the House, that are also calling for his resignation. Look, it’s clear that this is a person who should not be EPA administrator. He should never have been appointed. He certainly should never have been confirmed. And he should be removed from office as quickly as possible.
And as I said earlier, this is—the scandals around the phone booth or the security detail, all of this stuff with his first-class travel, the sweetheart deal to stay at a luxury condominium a couple of blocks from the Capitol, all of that is an abuse of taxpayer funds, and people should be outraged by it, because you’re paying for it as a taxpayer. But what I believe is more concerning, and was reflected in Congressman Pallone’s testimony, is the impact that Scott Pruitt’s decisions are having on you and me, the health of people all across this country.
Right now Scott Pruitt is working on undermining the clean car standard, which is a standard that is supported by 90 percent of Americans—Democrats and Republicans—because it cuts air pollution, cuts water pollution and climate pollution, and it saves people money. What it does is makes cars more efficient. It helps people to transition to cleaner vehicles—hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles—or simply more fuel-efficient vehicles that reduces our dependence on oil, and it makes innovating industries in the auto sector more successful.
This is one of a dozen—dozens of things that this EPA administrator is doing. He either is denying science, denying climate science, he’s trying to muzzle scientists, dissolving scientific advisory boards, he’s trying to undo safeguards, or he’s cutting the enforcement of those safeguards. Enforcement at the EPA is down by 40 percent. So, we are challenging this EPA administrator. We’re challenging him in court every day. But we also need to see him removed from office as quickly as possible.
AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds. Emily Atkin, your latest piece is headlined “The EPA Is Acting Like Big Tobacco.” How?
EMILY ATKIN: The EPA, Scott Pruitt, proposed a rule to change what kind of science the EPA can use in order to create regulations. It’s marketed as a transparency policy, so the administrator is saying that only open data can be—only studies that use open data can be used. That actually disqualifies the vast majority of health research on air pollution, lead pollution, climate change. And what I describe in the piece is that this is a tactic lifted directly from Big Tobacco when they tried to disqualify research about the health effects of tobacco in order to avoid paying financial penalties. And I should just add that the tobacco lobbyist who worked on that for Big Tobacco is now taking credit for that for the EPA.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Emily Atkin, The New Republic, Michael Brune, Sierra Club. And, Emily, we’ll link to your pieces at democracynow.org.
Coming up, as the Supreme Court looks poised to uphold President Trump’s travel ban, we’ll speak to Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu, whose challenge of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II went to the Supreme Court, as well. Stay with us.