Facing Congress, EPA chief doesn't appear ready to apologize after deluge of ethics allegations

WASHINGTON — Even with Republican lawmakers' patience running short, President Donald Trump's environmental chief appears to be in no mood to apologize as he faces Congress for the first time since a deluge of ethics allegations has consumed his tenure.

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt will make no reference to ethics issues or complaints about lavish spending on travel and security that have dogged him in recent months, according to an opening statement for an appearance before a House energy panel Thursday.

Pruitt is likely to face sharp questions about his spending decisions, and his answers could prove crucial in determining whether he stays atop EPA, lawmakers say.

Republicans have largely stood behind Pruitt, saying they are encouraged by his efforts to ease federal regulations on manufacturing, mining and other industries. But as allegations against Pruitt keep surfacing, even his allies increasingly are raising doubts about his job security.

Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and John Thune, R-S.D., said Pruitt faces "serious questions" about his use of taxpayer money.

"I want to make sure taxpayers are getting value for their dollars, make sure money is being spent appropriately. So there continue to be serious questions," said Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

While President Trump has previously backed Pruitt, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared noncommittal Wednesday. "We're evaluating these concerns, and we expect the EPA administrator to answer for them," she said.

The shift represented growing frustration that Pruitt's problems were becoming the Republican Party's problems in a campaign season where the GOP is already facing headwinds. Pruitt's spending pattern is out of step both with President Trump's promise to bring corporate efficiency and penny-pinching to government and with the rules many lawmakers must follow. While some have praised Pruitt's refusal to back down, casting him as a fighter against a bias liberal media, others said it was time for him to explain himself.

"Frankly, I think Scott Pruitt's done a great job of reinstating sanity in the rulemaking and the regulating process at EPA," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said.

Pruitt's political mentor, GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, called recent allegations about Pruitt "concerning."

Inhofe said he generally has been pleased with the performance of Pruitt — a former Oklahoma attorney general — in rolling back regulations and "restoring the EPA to its proper size and scope."

But, he said, "These latest reports are new to me. While I have no reason to believe they are true, they are concerning and I think we should hear directly from Administrator Pruitt about them."

Administration officials said Pruitt has declined White House help in preparing for Thursday's hearings, to be held by subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce and Appropriations panels. Other Cabinet members — including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — accepted White House help in similar situations.

While administration officials have cheered Pruitt's actions to roll back environmental regulations, many have grown weary of the mounting allegations against him. Former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler was recently confirmed as Pruitt's deputy, and some Republicans say privately that Wheeler, a former EPA and Inhofe staffer, could continue the agency's deregulatory agenda without the drama that surrounds Pruitt.

"Obviously, Scott Pruitt has got some serious questions to answer," said Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate.

Those questions include Pruitt's use of shell companies in Oklahoma real estate deals and spending taxpayer money for such personal perks as first-class airline seats. The AP and other news media reported this week that EPA's security chief worked on the side as a private investigator for the owner of a tabloid news company with close ties to President Trump.

Pruitt also is likely to face questions about reports that he lived in a bargain-priced condominium linked to a lobbyist whose firm's clients have business before EPA.

Pruitt's opening statement for his appearance before the House energy panel makes no reference to ethics issues. Released before the hearing, the statement promotes prior accomplishments and outlines budget priorities.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the hearings were an opportunity to reiterate Pruitt's accomplishments, including repeal of President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States rule, "providing regulatory certainty, and declaring a war on lead — all while returning to Reagan-era staffing levels."

In the past, Pruitt has often sought to deflect questions about missteps by blaming subordinates.

Asked about his frequent use of premium-class airfare, Pruitt said in February, "I'm not involved in any of those decisions." He said his security chief made the decision for him to fly in first class after an unpleasant interaction with another traveler raised safety concerns.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said Pruitt's behavior has hurt President Trump's credibility and the Republican Party.

"I don't mean to be too harsh, but you can't just go around acting like a big shot, and you can't go around ... disrespecting taxpayer dollars," Kennedy said. "It shouldn't be tolerated. That's part of the swamp that we're trying to clean up."