Scott Pruitt, Under an Ethics Cloud, Faces Lawmakers

Scott Pruitt at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday morning. He later testified before the House Appropriations Committee.

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday in what turned out to be a daylong grilling over allegations of ethical infractions and lavish spending.

The E.P.A. chief, whose job may be hanging by a thread, delivered a typically lawyerly performance.

As Democrats opened an aggressive, coordinated line of questioning — on Mr. Pruitt’s spending, housing arrangements, security team and raises for political appointees — he stayed quiet and calm, never raising his voice or his temper, but rarely giving direct answers to those questions.

Here are the highlights from the two sessions:

Representative Paul Tonko, Democrat of New York, got the morning questioning off to a start by asking Mr. Pruitt to answer “yes or no” to whether he had approved pay raises for two E.P.A. employees he brought with him from Oklahoma.

Mr. Pruitt said he had delegated the authority to grant such approvals, or as he put it, “There was delegation given in my authority.” He said, “I was not aware of the amount, and I was not aware of the bypassing that was going on.”

Mr. Tonko said the answer suggested “you have no idea what is going on” under Mr. Pruitt’s name at the agency.

Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, was even more direct in his opening remarks Thursday morning. “You are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust,” he told Mr. Pruitt. “Every indication we have is you really should resign.”

He followed up by asking Mr. Pruitt whether he had sidelined or demoted at least five employees who disagreed with him, demanding a “yes or no” answer as to whether he had called for these changes.

“I don’t ever recall a conversation about that,” Mr. Pruitt said.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Mr. Pallone responded.

“You shouldn’t take that as a yes,” the administrator pushed back.

Mr. Pallone continued to press. “Has it always been your practice to fire people who disagree with you?”

Republicans also chastised Mr. Pruitt from the beginning, but their questions tended to be much more gentle.

Representative Joe Barton of Texas, who has long denied the overwhelming evidence of human effects on climate change, offered sympathy in the morning session. “Mr. Pruitt, you’re not the first victim of Washington politics,” he said.

As to Mr. Pruitt’s penchant for first-class travel, Mr. Barton said: “You’ve been attacked for flying first class. Was that illegal? It may look bad, but it’s not illegal.”

Representative David B. McKinley, Republican of West Virginia, told Mr. Pruitt sympathetically that the attacks on him “have an echo of McCarthyism.”

Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, speaking in the morning session, drilled down on some of the ethics questions concerning Mr. Pruitt’s expenses in office and his past financial dealings.

She first asked about Mr. Pruitt’s famous soundproof booth, installed in his E.P.A. office at a cost of $43,000. The Government Accountability Office has ruled that the expenditure broke the law.

Mr. Pruitt had previously testified that the expense was appropriate. In light of the recent ruling, Ms. DeGette asked whether Mr. Pruitt knew that the purchase had violated the law and whether anyone would be penalized.

“We are investigating this internally,” he said.

“Would you agree that public officials should be held to the highest standards of ethical conduct?” she asked. He responded that he did.

Representative Tony Cárdenas, a California Democrat, also brought up the phone booth.

“I was not aware of the approval of the $43,000,” Mr. Pruitt told him, “and if I had known about it, congressman, I would not have approved it.”

Mr. Cárdenas responded that “if someone was spending $43,000 in my office, I would know about it.”

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Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, was asked about recent ethics and spending scandals.CreditCredit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a California Democrat, had scathing criticism for Mr. Pruitt when her turn for questioning came Thursday morning. “You have a solid record of violating ethics rules from the state level to the federal government,” she told him. “I think it’s an embarrassment.”

Then she asked: “Do you have any remorse? Yes or no?”

Mr. Pruitt responded: “I think there are changes I’ve made already. I’ve made a change from first class to coach travel.”

Ms. Eshoo returned to her call for a yes-or-no answer, and asked Mr. Pruitt whether he would reimburse the government. He launched into a long response, but she cut him off.

“With all due respect, I may be elected, but I’m not a fool,” she said. “This is not ‘dodge-question’ day.”

In the afternoon session, Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, pressed Mr. Pruitt about his claims that he had been obliged to fly first class because of “unprecedented” death threats. Ms. McCollum told Mr. Pruitt that her office had contacted the E.P.A. inspector general, Arthur A. Elkins Jr., and that “he disputed your claim.” Besides, she said, “We all receive death threats on our Facebook page.”

Ms. DeGette also questioned Mr. Pruitt about his involvement in real estate deals in Oklahoma, referring to the purchaser of his home as a “shell company.”

“It’s not a shell company,” he said quickly, and said that such financial structures were commonly used to purchase real estate in Oklahoma.

She then asked Mr. Pruitt whether he had paid taxes on rent he received. He said such issues had been handed over to an accountant.

When asked in the morning session about his announcement this week that the E.P.A. would restrict the kinds of scientific studies that it would use in forming policy, Mr. Pruitt responded: “It seems to me that it’s common sense that as we do rule-making, we base it on scientific conclusions that we should be able to see the data and methodology that causes those conclusions. That makes sense to me.”

Ms. McCollum, the Minnesota Democrat, also took time to focus on the question of whether E.P.A. staff members who challenged Mr. Pruitt’s spending and other conduct had been unfairly demoted or reassigned.

Mr. Pruitt denied that any of his employees had been demoted, fired or sidelined because they had questioned his spending. “I’m not aware of any instance in that regard,” Mr. Pruitt said.

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Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, testified about spending in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior and the E.P.A.CreditCredit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, a Democrat, said in the afternoon session that she wanted to focus on “severe policy disagreements” with Mr. Pruitt and expressed concern that Trump administration officials appeared to believe they are “there to dismantle” the agencies they lead.

In his exchange with Ms. Pingree, the E.P.A. chief defended the administration’s efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s signature plan to curb greenhouse gases. To support his position, he falsely said that the plan had been struck down by the Supreme Court. (The justices delayed the plan but did not rule on the merits before the change in administrations.)

Mr. Pruitt said Thursday morning that the agency was “not at present” planning any efforts to revoke a decades-old waiver that allows California to enforce its own emissions standards on automobiles.

But he would not say definitively whether that was a final position. The E.P.A. is “working very diligently and diplomatically with California to find answers on this issue,” Mr. Pruitt said, in response to questions from Representative Doris Matsui, a California Democrat who has sought to protect her state’s ability to regulate emissions.

Moments after Mr. Pruitt finished his second and final appearance of the day on Capitol Hill, his security detail hustled him out of the hearing room. Most Republicans also rushed out, while Democrats lingered to continue their criticisms of the administrator for reporters.

Representative Ken Calvert, the California Republican who presided over the afternoon session, called Mr. Pruitt’s appearance “very professional.” Asked whether Mr. Pruitt should resign, he said no.

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