House Republican power brokers are zeroing in on Scott Pruitt—and they’re predicting a rocky road ahead for the controversy-laden Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
Democrats have long maligned Pruitt for, among other things, his spending habits, rental of a condo from a juggernaut lobbyist couple, and endorsement of dramatic raises for two top political staffers. And Republicans have largely brushed off the accusations, choosing instead to champion Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda.
But now a sea change is under way in the House majority caucus, and Republican misgivings are soon poised to spill out into the public.
Pruitt is set to face off against House Energy and Commerce lawmakers on April 26. The chairman of that committee is signaling that he aims to seriously scrutinize the EPA chief.
“I think all members will have questions about lots of things that have been in the press, and he needs to be prepared to fully and completely address those issues,” Chairman Greg Walden said. “We have concerns. We have concerns.”
However, a House Oversight Committee investigation—now in preliminary stages and led by Chairman Trey Gowdy—likely represents the biggest threat to Pruitt’s job. Committee staff are set to interview four high-ranking EPA employees—Pruitt’s chief of staff, his head of security, and the two staffers who received raises—in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Kevin Chmielewski, a Trump loyalist and campaign aide, will also head to the committee for an interview, following a series of meetings that he held with members on both sides of the aisle last week. According to some of those lawmakers, Chmielewski claims that Pruitt fired him after he challenged excessive spending.
Republican members on the committee, including influential conservatives who have staunchly backed Pruitt, are giving their stamp of approval to Gowdy’s probe.
“If Republicans are going to be preaching fiscal responsibility, that should be good across the board, so I support Mr. Gowdy and what he’s trying to dig into here,” said Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee and an Oversight member. “I have not talked to any [members] who have pushed back against it at this point. … You gotta walk the walk if you’re going to talk the talk.”
Another Republican on the committee, Freedom Caucus member Mark Sanford, said the committee probe would likely expand.
“I think there will be probably a wider envelope as we go further into it. … I think more people will get involved,” he said. “The expenditure of public money matters, and at times it seems there’s been fairly casual disregard for the sanctity of the taxpayer dollar.”
Gowdy is a tireless former prosecutor who made a name for himself as the head of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, a panel that investigated the government’s actions regarding the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the creation of the committee, and the panel’s activities largely burrowed into Hillary Clinton’s involvement as Secretary of State at the time.
Now, Gowdy, who won’t run for another term, is probing Pruitt’s regular first-class travel, as well as alleged security threats against the administrator. The EPA failed to produce all relevant documentation on that front, according to a letter that Gowdy sent last week. The chairman is also looking into Pruitt’s $50-a-night condo contract with the lobbyist couple and his demands for a range of beefed-up security measures, which according to reports could have cost taxpayers $3 million a year. The letters request responses by April 25 and 27.
Gowdy isn’t pulling punches publicly against Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general repeatedly sued the EPA over high-profile regulations.
“If you want to avoid people on the plane, sit in the last seat, not the first seat,” the chairman told Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Sunday. “You need to go into another line of work if you don’t want people to be mean to you, like maybe a monk where you don’t come in contact with anyone.”
For the first time in the whirlwind Pruitt saga, Republican scrutiny is building—and many Democrats are applauding.
“I think Pruitt has stretched the rules as much as they can be stretched,” said Elijah Cummings, the ranking member on the Oversight Committee who often clashed with Gowdy’s predecessor, Darrell Issa. “In regard to bipartisanship, I’ve been very pleased with what Gowdy’s been doing. He’s agreed to have [the EPA officials and Chmielewski] come in for transcribed interviews. That’s a major step.”
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the agency “has responded to Chairman Gowdy’s inquiries and we will continue to work with him.” Wilcox also confirmed to National Journal that Pruitt will testify before Congress next week as planned.
Still, some Democrats are less convinced that Gowdy is interested in delivering real accountability.
“He has been completely somnolent,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, the ranking member of the Oversight Committee’s Government Operations subpanel. “I’m delighted to learn that we might actually spend some serious time looking at malfeasance at the EPA.”
Connolly has cautioned that the chairman has yet to depose witnesses or subpoena documents.
A range of Democrats continue to move full-steam-ahead to force Pruitt out of office. On Wednesday, 39 senators—80 percent of the Democratic caucus—signed a resolution calling for his resignation, as did 131 House members. No Republicans joined, despite a handful previously calling for Pruitt’s departure.
The EPA inspector general is continuing four probes into the administrator on his travel habits, security detail and hiring practice. And the Government Accountability Office said Monday that the EPA broke the law in allowing Pruitt to install a soundproof privacy booth valued at more than $43,000. Congressional authorization is required for expenditures that exceed $5,000.
Key Senate Republicans, however, are showing far more deference to the administrator than their House colleagues. John Barrasso, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has aggressively pushed back on calls to conduct oversight, arguing that an ongoing White House investigation is sufficient.
But late last week, Barrasso asked Pruitt to confirm that all his communications are unearthed in Freedom of Information Act requests following a report that Pruitt has used four email addresses since taking over at the agency. During Pruitt’s contentious confirmation hearing in early 2017, Barrasso criticized the EPA administrator under Obama, Lisa Jackson, for using an alternate address.
“If confirmed, will you refrain from taking any such action that makes it difficult or impossible for the public to access your official written communication under the Freedom of Information Act?” Barrasso asked at the time.
Pruitt agreed, saying, “I really believe that public participation and transparency in rulemaking is very important and I think that extends to this matter as well.”
Barrasso’s hands-off approach may soon hit headwinds from even his own caucus. Asked whether the EPW committee should be more forceful in investigating Pruitt’s alleged scandals, Deb Fischer, who represents Nebraska, said: “I would say Nebraskans would expect us to, and so we’ll see what the decisions made by the chairman are.”