EPA chief tells U.S. lawmakers he has fund to fight off ethics complaints

by Reuters
Wednesday, 16 May 2018 15:36 GMT

(Recasts with legal defense fund, adds quotes, details)

By Valerie Volcovici and Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON, May 16 (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said on Wednesday that he now has a legal fund in place to help him fight off a growing list of allegations against him related to his spending and reported ethical missteps in office.

"It has been set up," Pruitt told the 13-member Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies about the fund. He was speaking during a hearing meant to focus on the EPA's 2019 budget.

Pruitt has been under pressure from lawmakers in recent weeks over reports about his routine use of first-class travel, his 24/7 security detail, costly office renovations, and ties to industry - criticisms he called overblown on Wednesday.

He is still supported by President Donald Trump and most Republicans lawmakers, who have welcomed his efforts to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations that are seen by industry as overly burdensome.

At Wednesday's hearing, Democratic senators lambasted his record at the agency. Patrick Leahy of Vermont called his regulatory rollbacks and ethical controversies "unconscionable," and Tom Udall of New Mexico said his tenure at the EPA was "a betrayal of the American people."

Most of the committee's six Democratic members have vehemently opposed Pruitt's efforts to roll back climate and pollution regulations introduced under Democratic former President Barack Obama, and have seized on the controversies around Pruitt's conduct to call for his resignation.

The controversies have triggered some 12 investigations by the EPA's inspector general, congressional committees and the White House. A Government Accountability Office probe concluded last month that the EPA had violated the law by spending $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth for Pruitt's office without first notifying lawmakers.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski – chair of the Appropriations subcommittee – said in her opening remarks that she welcomed some of Pruitt's regulatory agenda but the ethics issues were a distraction.

"Unfortunately, I am concerned that many of the important policy efforts you are engaged in are being overshadowed," she said. "There are some legitimate questions that need to be answered," she said.

Pruitt told the panel that he understood the concerns, but added that "some of the criticism is unfounded and exaggerated."

Some changes have been implemented since some of the scandals broke, including adding a new requirement that any spending over $5,000 needs to be signed off by several senior officials, Pruitt told the panel.

Pruitt has also said that he has stopped routinely flying first class, something the agency had previously defended as a way to help him avoid threats from the public.

Pruitt said his attorney was working with the Government Accountability Office to make sure that his legal defense fund was run properly. All donations to the fund would be published and available to the public, he said, and he committed "absolutely" not to accept any donations from lobbyists or companies that have business before the EPA.

When asked if he would commit to not accepting anonymous donations for the fund, Pruitt said his lawyers handle them and would follow official guidelines. (Writing by Richard Valdmanis Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Marguerita Choy and Frances Kerry)

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