Embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt acknowledged in congressional testimony Thursday that he was aware of at least one of two controversial pay raises for members of his staff -- despite downplaying his knowledge of the move in a recent Fox News interview.
When asked by Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Ill., about the pay raises and conflicting accounts, Pruitt responded, “I was aware ... one of those individuals was receiving a raise.”
Pruitt, testifying before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, said he had delegated authority for the raises. He said he authorized his chief of staff to sign off, but: “I was not aware of the amount, nor was I aware of the process not being respected.”
Pruitt had originally told Fox News on April 4 that he didn’t approve the raises for fellow Oklahomans Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp and didn’t know who had.
He claimed he had only learned of the raises the day before.
The Washington Post reported, though, that Greenwalt emailed a colleague in the EPA’s HR department stating the raises had been discussed with Pruitt in advance.
According to previous accounts, Pruitt in March approached the White House and asked for substantial pay raises. Pruitt asked to bump Greenwalt’s salary to $164,200 from $107,435 and Hupp’s to $114,590 from $86,460. Since the employees were political appointees, the White House needed to sign off on it but refused.
The EPA then used a little-known provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act to skirt the White House’s decision and green-light the salary increases.
Pruitt has also come under fire for other spending decisions as well as allegations of ethical infractions.
Among other things, Pruitt’s been accused of flying first-class on the taxpayer’s dime, spending $43,000 on a soundproof telephone booth and buying a bullet-proof desk. He’s also racked up $3 million in expenses that includes hiring a 20-member security detail for himself.
Pruitt on Thursday blamed his staff for some of those decisions.
'The buck stops at your desk.'
When asked by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., about his pricey air travel, Pruitt claimed to be removed from the decision-making process.
“I am not involved in any of those decisions,” Pruitt said.
Pallone pushed back: “The buck stops at your desk.”
He also told Pruitt he was “unfit to hold public office.”
Pallone also pressed Pruitt on whether he had retaliated against employees who had raised alarm over his spending decisions. “Has it always been your practice to fire people who disagree with you?” Pallone asked.
Pruitt responded, “I don’t ever recall a conversation to that end.”
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., also hammered Pruitt, telling him he was “never fit for this job.”
Even Republican Chairman John Shimkus called the allegations against Pruitt “a distraction” that can’t be ignored.
Other Republicans on the panel mostly rallied to Pruitt’s defense, praising him for reversing Obama-era regulations and other measures he has taken at the EPA.
For his part, Pruitt told lawmakers he wanted to clear up the allegations against him.
“I, more than anyone, want to establish the hard facts and provide answers to questions surrounding these reports,” Pruitt said during his opening remarks. “Let me be very clear: I have nothing to hide as it relates to how I’ve run the agency for the past 16 months.”
Pruitt called the controversies swirling around him “half-truths” and “twisted” allegations by people who are trying to undermine President Trump’s anti-regulatory agenda.
“Facts are facts and fiction is fiction,” Pruitt said.
During a separate afternoon hearing, Pruitt detailed two deaths threats he said he received via Facebook. He said the threats were why, in part, he upped his security detail.
One read, “Pruitt, I’m going to find you and put a bullet between your eyes. Don’t think I’m joking. I’m planning this.”