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Administrator Grilled Over Ethical Lapses and Regulatory Rollbacks

The New York Times

Last week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared before a U.S. House committee to answer questions about several scandals that have marked his administration.

“Good morning, Administrator Pruitt, and welcome back to the environment subcommittee,” said Congressman John Shimkus, a Republican from Illinois, chairman of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland, a Democrat, was among those who grilled the EPA Administrator. Pruitt is a former Oklahoma attorney general who works in close concert with his state’s oil and gas industry to roll back environmental regulations that impact that industry.

“We’ve trying to keep up with the ethical lapses of the Trump Administration, and which I will tell you is kind of a full-time job,” Sarbanes said.  “And you certainly have been at the center of some of that focus. To date, five independent federal investigations have been initiated at this committee’s request, and more than eight independent federal reviews.” 

The investigations include an inquiry into why Pruitt is not only eliminating public health protections and restricting the use of science – but also giving raises of 50 percent and 33 percent to his Oklahoma political appointees at EPA, using funds meant for the Safe Drinking Water Act. Pruitt also rented a DC townhouse from a lobbyist at a fraction of market rates and repeatedly flew first class back to Oklahoma on personal business while charging taxpayers, according to testimony from a Trump Administration official.

Pruitt’s response was to blame his staff for some of the problems, and then try to make people confused about the whole notion of fact and fiction, news and fake news.

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

Despite this professed desire for candor and openness, Pruitt refused to answer many of the factual questions posed to him.

Here’s Congressman Sarbanes again:

“Mr. Pruitt, I’ve been watching you during the hearing, and you certainly have the bearing of a man who thinks he’s untouchable,” Sarbanes said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’d be careful about that, because I don’t think Americans go for that. In your position, they just want you to protect their air, they want to protect clean water, and they want you to conserve the land.” 

Many Republicans on the committee defended Pruitt, praising him for working rapidly to undo regulations that reduce the profitability of some businesses.

Here’s U.S. Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas.

“Mr. Administrator, you’re not the first person to be the victim of – for the lack of a better term – Washington politics,” Barton said. “You got picked to be the EPA Administrator for the service that you provided for the great state of Oklahoma in fighting some of the Obama Administration radical clean air policies.”

That last phrase by Barton was a telling one because rarely do lawmakers – or people, more broadly -- call clean air policies “radical.”  But it was a sign of just how radical the Trump Administration and its allies in Congress have become. They are calling the pursuit of an obvious public good like clean air “radical” and defending to the hilt an EPA Administrator whose sole purpose is to dismantle the public agency he was hired to run.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.