- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2018

After weeks of bad headlines and ethical controversies, a defiant EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Thursday appeared before lawmakers and weathered blistering calls to resign, arguing that he’s the victim of a media-driven witch hunt designed to halt President Trump’s deregulatory agenda.

Mr. Pruitt’s appearances before two House subcommittees Thursday — ostensibly to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget request — finally gave Democrats the public forum they’d been waiting for to blast the agency chief, who has faced a seemingly endless string of scandals and reportedly is on increasingly thin ice with the White House. Even powerful Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment said it was past time for Mr. Pruitt to answer the litany of serious questions that continue to dog him — questions about a sweetheart condo rental from an oil industry lobbyist, alleged retaliation against EPA employees who disagree with him, an unprecedented security detail funded by taxpayers and a host of other issues.

Democrats relished the opportunity to publicly excoriate the administrator.

“You have failed as a steward of American taxpayer dollars and our environment. You claim to believe in the mission of the EPA, but your actions … tell a very different story,” said Rep. Paul Tonko, New York Democrat and ranking member on the subcommittee on the environment.

“You were never fit for this job and your refusal to provide any serious transparency, accept any accountability or show even the slightest contrition is inexcusable,” he continued.

Mr. Tonko and others zeroed in on recent reports from federal watchdogs concluding that Mr. Pruitt broke the law when he spent $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth for his office. He said Thursday he didn’t know about the project and would have refused it if he’d been aware.

He also tried to rent a private jet at a cost to taxpayers of $100,000 per month, according to EPA whistle-blowers who leaked information to congressional Democrats.

Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, said those decisions give the White House cause to fire Mr. Pruitt.

“I think your actions are an embarrassment to President Trump,” he said. “If I were the president, I wouldn’t want your help. I’d just get rid of you.”

Mr. Pruitt did not shrivel in the face of those attacks, and instead hit back against both his Democratic critics and the news media.

“Facts are facts and fiction is fiction, and a lie doesn’t become truth just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper,” Mr. Pruitt said. “Much of what has been targeted toward me and my team has been half truths or, at best, stories that have been so twisted that they do not resemble reality.”

“Let’s have no illusion about what’s really going on here,” he continued. “Those who attack the EPA and attack me are doing so because they want to derail the president’s agenda.”

The administrator said he has “nothing to hide,” but did concede there has been a “learning process” during his 16 months as head of the EPA, and that he’ll cooperate if investigators find any wrongdoing at the agency. The EPA still officially denies it broke the law by installing the phone booth.

One of the most heated topics Thursday concerned raises for two of Mr. Pruitt’s two aides — raises the White House had rejected, and that the administrator said earlier this month he knew nothing about.

“I was not aware of the amount, nor was I aware of the bypassing” of the White House, he said Thursday, suggesting that perhaps he’d known about the fact that raises were being considered for the two aides.

Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, has taken the blame for those raises, and Mr. Pruitt said authority for granting such pay increases was “delegated to Mr. Jackson.”

While some committee Republicans said Mr. Pruitt needed to explain his actions, others blasted their Democratic colleagues for turning a budget hearing into a political interrogation.

“I think it’s shameful this hearing today has turned into a personal attack hearing, and a shameful attempt to denigrate the work that’s being done at the EPA,” said Rep. Bill Johnson, Ohio Republican.

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