EPA Chief Pruitt Faces Tough Questions On Capitol Hill EPA chief Scott Pruitt said the recent scrutiny he has received over ethical issues is an effort to undermine the president's agenda.
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EPA Chief Pruitt Faces Tough Questions On Capitol Hill

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EPA Chief Pruitt Faces Tough Questions On Capitol Hill

EPA Chief Pruitt Faces Tough Questions On Capitol Hill

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It promises to be a long day for Scott Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency. He's going to be testifying before two House subcommittees today as questions pile up about ethics and spending decisions that he has made. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Officially, both hearings are about EPA's budget for 2019, and Pruitt's prepared remarks don't mention the ethics issues. Still, they're sure to come up. It's a long list. For starters, first-class air tickets for his travel, a soundproof phonebooth for his office and a sweet deal - 50 bucks a night - for a condo on Capitol Hill. NPR counts 11 inquiries by agencies and congressional committees, some with multiple topics. Here's Pruitt defending the condo deal recently on Fox News.

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SCOTT PRUITT: When you look at the issue and the facts - which most people don't - but when you look at the facts of what I leased and what I paid for, it is absolutely 100 percent ethical. And it was signed off and is legal.

OVERBY: There's more to it than that. It turns out the landlady's husband is an energy lobbyist who met with Pruitt. Try as he might, Pruitt hasn't been able to make these issues go away. Jerry Taylor is president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank.

JERRY TAYLOR: New information continues to come out about behavior at the EPA, and all of it is incredibly disturbing and utterly unprecedented.

OVERBY: Republicans are getting tired of it. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate's primary committee on environmental issues, had praise for Pruitt in January.

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JOHN BARRASSO: Scott Pruitt's policies at the helm of EPA likely have protected more jobs and promoted more job growth than any other EPA administrator in history.

OVERBY: Last week, Barrasso wrote Pruitt a stern letter asking him to account for his four different email addresses at EPA. And in an interview with Fox News's Chris Wallace, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy laughed at Pruitt's claim that he had to fly first class to avoid belligerent people in coach.

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TREY GOWDY: So the notion that I've got to fly first class because I don't want people to be mean to me, you need to go into another line of work if you don't want people to be mean to you, like maybe a monk.

OVERBY: Some of these problems might have been foreseen. At Pruitt's confirmation hearing back in January 2017, Democrats challenged his record as attorney general of Oklahoma. Pruitt led legal battles against further regulations on the energy industry. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon asked Pruitt about a letter he had sent to EPA. The Oklahoma attorney general was helping an Oklahoma energy company fight EPA policy.

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PRUITT: Senator, that is the letter that's on my letterhead that was sent to the EPA, yes, with respect to the...

JEFF MERKLEY: You acknowledge that 97 percent of the words in that letter came directly from Devon Energy?

OVERBY: Pruitt didn't deny it. Senator Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican who wound up voting against Pruitt. She told CNN earlier this month that his ethics problems were distracting from bigger issues, and even on policy grounds...

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SUSAN COLLINS: I think Scott Pruitt is the wrong person to head the EPA.

OVERBY: An EPA spokesman said Pruitt regards today's hearings as an opportunity to reiterate the accomplishments of President Trump's EPA, but Ana Unruh Cohen of the Natural Resources Defense Council sees it more starkly.

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ANA UNRUH COHEN: These hearings are clearly make-and-break hearings for Scott Pruitt.

OVERBY: And his main audience will be down the street at the White House. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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