How Scott Pruitt Plans to Defend Himself on Capitol Hill: Spread the Blame

Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency chief, at the White House on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — As Scott Pruitt, the embattled head of the Environmental Protection Agency, prepares to testify before Congress on Thursday amid a series of spending and ethics investigations, an internal E.P.A. document indicates that he may blame his staff for many of the decisions that have put a cloud over his tenure at the agency.

The document, known as the “hot topics” list, appears to lay out talking points for Mr. Pruitt’s two sessions before the House of Representatives. It suggests that Mr. Pruitt is prepared to say that he now flies coach when traveling; that others were responsible for giving two close aides who used to work for him in Oklahoma substantial pay raises; and that E.P.A. officials who were reassigned or demoted after challenging his spending all had performance issues.

The document, which The New York Times has reviewed and the veracity of which the E.P.A. did not dispute, seemed to be a work in progress. Mr. Pruitt’s responses may change on Thursday when he appears before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in the morning, and a House Appropriations Committee panel in the afternoon.

His testimony coincides with rising calls from both Democrats and Republicans for Mr. Pruitt to step aside. He has been criticized for spending more than $3 million on security in his first year in office, a figure that includes salary and overtime for his security detail of more than 20 people, some of whom have been dispatched to protect Mr. Pruitt on private trips to Disneyland, professional basketball games and the 2018 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

Republicans in both chambers of Congress are increasingly raising concerns about Mr. Pruitt. “They’re not good reports,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. “He has to answer those questions. There’s a lot of stuff out there that is certainly not helpful to his or the administration’s cause.”

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the E.P.A., said in a statement that Mr. Pruitt was looking forward to discussing the agency’s efforts with lawmakers.

“Congressional hearings are an opportunity to reiterate the accomplishments of President Trump’s E.P.A., which include: working to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, providing regulatory certainty, and declaring a war on lead, all while returning to Reagan-era staffing levels,” Mr. Wilcox said.

Mr. Pruitt, in his prepared opening statement, which the House Energy and Commerce Committee made public Wednesday morning, makes no mention of the ethics issues that have dogged him recently.

Several Democrats said that they planned to ask Mr. Pruitt about environmental policy and climate change as well as ethics questions and detailed allegations of unchecked spending.

“On the ethics, the thing I worry about most is this concerted effort to basically fire everyone who questioned him,” said Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the leading Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The biggest concern I have, which runs across the whole spectrum, is science. He wants to put science under the rug, make decisions that are not scientifically based. Get rid of anyone who is scientifically oriented.”

Under Mr. Pruitt’s leadership, the E.P.A. has begun to systematically dismantle former President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy. Mr. Pruitt’s zeal to roll back climate change regulations and impose new rules that benefit fossil fuel industries has endeared him to Mr. Trump. The president also is said to enjoy his E.P.A. chief’s company.

But the spending controversies have proven to be a major distraction. Mr. Pruitt currently faces 10 investigations by the E.P.A.’s inspector general’s office, the congressional watchdog Government Accountability Office, and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, among others. One White House official said support for Mr. Pruitt inside the White House was waning.

On Wednesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s press secretary, said a White House review of Mr. Pruitt’s ethics issues was “ongoing” but offered no details. “We’re evaluating these concerns and we expect the E.P.A. administrator to answer for them and we’ll keep you posted,” she said.

Hogan Gidley, another White House spokesman, offered an even moretempered defense in an interview with N.P.R.’s Morning Edition, saying on Wednesday, “We’ve seen the reports and it raises questions, and the E.P.A., quite frankly, and Mr. Pruitt, are going to have to answer those questions in short order.”

Against that backdrop, the hot topics document offers a window into how Mr. Pruitt views what both Democrats and Republicans say are serious ethical lapses.

The list is written in the first person and is structured around two dozen or so subjects, starting with sensitive issues like his travel and security spending, and whether he improperly maintained a secret email address, “” The document also prepares Mr. Pruitt for questions on polarizing policy topics like why the E.P.A. removed climate change from its four-year strategic plan and restructured agency operations.

The responses show that Mr. Pruitt is prepared to push back hard against accusations that he misspent taxpayer money and to blame both career and political staff members as well as his security detail for myriad spending decisions.

If Mr. Pruitt is asked about the roughly $163,000 in first-class flights he has taken since assuming the helm of E.P.A., the document suggests that Mr. Pruitt will say he was obligated to take the advice of his security team that first class was safer. But, he may tell lawmakers, he has since instructed officers to address security threats in new ways, including by allowing him to sit in coach.

“Changes have already begun occurring and I have been flying coach,” was one possible response, according to the document.

If he is asked about the 67 percent and 72 percent raises given to current aides who worked for Mr. Pruitt when he served as attorney general of Oklahoma, the document indicates he should answer that all decisions were made by others. The raises are suspended while the White House reviews them, he may say.

And if asked about reports that staff members who questioned the administrator’s spending were demoted, reassigned or requested new jobs, the document shows that Mr. Pruitt may suggest other reasons for the moves.

One of those former employees is John E. Reeder, the E.P.A. deputy chief of staff who joined American University as a temporary “executive in residence” after losing many of his job responsibilities. Two administration officials said Mr. Reeder was among the top officials who voiced concerns directly to Mr. Pruitt about his spending.

The document indicates that Mr. Pruitt is prepared to tell members of Congress that Mr. Reeder was questioned by the House Oversight Committee in 2015 about whether he and other E.P.A. leaders failed to address multiple allegations of workplace sexual harassment. Mr. Reeder declined to comment on the matter. But in sworn testimony in April 2015, he denied the allegation and no disciplinary action was recommended or taken.

If Mr. Pruitt is asked about Kevin Chmielewski, who served as Mr. Pruitt’s deputy chief of staff for operations before he was fired on March 18, the document shows that the E.P.A. chief may say that Mr. Chmielewski “had performance issues.” Mr. Chmielewski has told associates that he believes complaints about his performance were retaliation for his raising objections about Mr. Pruitt's stewardship of taxpayer money — concerns that Mr. Chmielewski has since brought to members of Congress. Mr. Chmielewski did not respond to requests for comment.

Many of the “hot topics” items mirror answers given by the E.P.A. press office over the past several months in response to various scandals. For example, Mr. Pruitt may intend to deflect questions about why he paid to have his office swept for listening devices by noting — as the agency has before — that Lisa Jackson, who led the E.P.A. under President Barack Obama, did the same.

Other allegations, like reports that the E.P.A. looked into a bulletproof desk and a bulletproof sport utility vehicle, Mr. Pruitt may flatly deny, saying he wants to “put this rumor to rest,” according to the memo. He may note that after a man opened fire on Republican members of Congress during practice for the Congressional Baseball Game last year, his security detail draped bulletproof vests over the car seats.

Two people familiar with Mr. Pruitt’s security spending said his supporters internally explained increased security spending by suggesting that the administrator could have been at the congressional baseball practice. During his rise to prominence in Oklahoma, Mr. Pruitt managed and co-owned the Oklahoma City minor-league baseball team, and had been invited to the congressional practices.

Mr. Pruitt may also say that “at no point” did the E.P.A. hire private security guards in Italy to protect him during a trip there in June of 2017. Democrats asked about that contract in a letter to Mr. Pruitt this month based on information provided by Mr. Chmielewski.

Mr. Pruitt’s goal on Thursday may be to convince Republicans that his personal spending issues will not be an ongoing political distraction. Representative Greg Walden, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said, “It will be a cordial reception, but he’s got some tough questions to answer.”

Eric Lipton and Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting from Washington.

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