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Grilled by U.S. lawmakers, Trump's EPA chief calls ethics scandals lies

By Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan
Grilled by U.S. lawmakers, Trump's EPA chief calls ethics scandals lies

By Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt on Thursday rejected a litany of ethics complaints against him as lies intended to derail President Donald Trump's agenda, and put much of the blame for any agency missteps on his staff.

During two tense congressional hearings, Pruitt faced tough questions from Democrats and even some fellow Republicans in marathon high-stakes testimony as he seeks to avoid becoming the latest in a long list of Cabinet members and senior White House officials to have either been fired by Trump or quit.

"Facts are facts and fiction is fiction," the embattled agency chief told a House of Representatives panel. "And a lie doesn't become true just because it appears in the front page of the newspaper."

"Those who attack the EPA and attack me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president's agenda and undermine this administration's priorities," Pruitt testified.

The hearings were scheduled to discuss the EPA budget, but mainly focused on Pruitt's performance.

Trump's inner circle has become frustrated by the torrent of news reports about Pruitt including his costly first-class air travel and around-the-clock security, pay raises given to aides and his rental of a room in a high-end Washington condo linked to an energy lobbyist.

Pruitt remained even-tempered and unapologetic throughout more than five hours of testimony, often avoiding being pinned down on specifics or deflecting responsibility for clear missteps onto his staff - a strategy that drew mixed reviews.

It remains to be seen how Trump will view his performance.

"It's never good to blame your staff. If you do it, do it behind closed doors," said Republican Representative John Shimkus of Illinois after the first hearing.

Democrats were more blunt. "You are unfit to hold public office," Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey told Pruitt.

Democratic Representative Paul Tonko of New York ripped Pruitt for his "seemingly endless misconduct" and "what appears to be a propensity for grift." Democrats also castigated Pruitt for rolling back environmental regulations the Trump administration has said hinder economic growth.

There are nearly a dozen pending investigations of Pruitt's conduct covering a range of allegations. The Government Accountability Office completed one this month that said the EPA violated two laws by installing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth for his office without telling lawmakers first.

Pruitt testified he requested the secure line, but said his staff never told him the cost and that he would not have made the expenditure had he known.

Pruitt has been among Trump's most controversial Cabinet members. He has drawn praise from conservatives and scorn from environmentalists for rolling back Democratic former President Barack Obama's policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other green regulations opposed by industry.

The tumult in the Trump administration was underscored on Thursday when the president's physician Ronny Jackson withdrew from consideration to head the Department of Veterans Affairs amid allegations of misconduct.

'INNUENDO AND MCCARTHYISM'

Some 170 Democratic lawmakers have demanded Pruitt's resignation. Five Republican lawmakers joined the call in recent days. But several Republicans expressed support for Pruitt at the hearings, praising his EPA accomplishments.

Representative David McKinley of West Virginia called the criticism of Pruitt a "classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism," a reference to a 1950s-era campaign to root out communists.

Fellow Republican Gregg Harper of Mississippi decried the "political bloodsport" of going after Trump administration officials. But Harper, like several Democrats, raised concerns about reports that whistleblowers who brought some of Pruitt's spending issues to light were removed or reassigned.

"There's no truth to the assertion that positions have been reassigned. I'm not aware of that ever happening," Pruitt said.

Republicans Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania and Leonard Lance of New Jersey quizzed Pruitt on EPA spending for his first-class flights - estimated to have cost taxpayers more than $100,000 - and security team.

"I've reviewed your answers and find some of them have been lacking or insufficient," Costello said.

Pruitt said he recently decided to stop flying first-class despite the EPA previously saying it was a necessary measure to protect him from the public. And he justified his 24-hour security team by reciting some of the personal threats he has received. He said the EPA inspector general's office has documented the threats and deemed them "unprecedented."

Pruitt also deflected a flurry of questions about his role in granting big raises to two of his aides - one of them amounting to more than 50 percent - over objections from the White House. Pruitt said he had given his chief of staff authority hand out salary increases without White House approval under an obscure provision of a clean water regulation, but was unaware of any of the other specifics.

Regarding his $50-per-night condo lease from an energy lobbyist's wife, Pruitt said the arrangement received ethics approval and noted that the EPA inspector general's office had found it to be roughly market rate.

The EPA's inspector general's office has since said its review was based on incomplete information, and did not address the question of whether the lease broke other federal ethics regulations.

During the second hearing, Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur raised Pruitt's first-class 2017 travels to Italy and Morocco, and questioned why he declined an invitation to visit Ohio to discuss pollution in Lake Erie.

"Do you know how much a flight to Toledo costs?" Kaptur asked.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Will Dunham and Diane Craft)