EPA chief’s home-state Republican ally says he supports Pruitt but wants answers
Jason Andrew/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — On the eve of what could be make-or-break congressional hearings Thursday, embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing mounting GOP concern, with perhaps none more eye-catching than that expressed by his home state senator, a self-professed friend and one-time neighbor.
Sen. James Inhofe’s unusual criticism – relayed to multiple reporters this week – following an unflattering weekend report in The New York Times about Pruitt’s past real estate deals and relationships with lobbyists that quickly made headlines around the country.
But on Wednesday, when ABC caught up with the senior senator, whose environmental policy views often align with Pruitt’s, Inhofe was also quick to throw his fellow Oklahoman a much-needed lifeline, saying he still supports Pruitt and want to give him every chance to explain.
“I’ve taken the position that the things that were in the New York Times story were things that to me were totally out of character for the Scott Pruitt I’ve known for decades,” Inhofe told ABC News. “so what I’m doing is checking to see if there’s a lot of truth to that, and if there is I would respond to it but I don’t think there is.”
News of Pruitt’s deals with lobbyists in his home state comes as Congress is already looking into his Washington living arrangements at the start of his tenure. As ABC News first reported, Pruitt spent a majority of last year living for $50 a night at a condo co-owned by the wife of a top lobbyist with business interests with the EPA. That lobbyist, Steven Hart, has since stepped down from his firm ahead of his planned retirement as it was revealed he met with Pruitt on behalf of a friend and former Smithfield Farms executive while Pruitt still lived in the condo co-owned by his wife. Smithfield Farms was a client of Hart’s firm but Hart said through a spokesman that the meeting was not in his official capacity.
Pruitt is expected to face questions about the ethical issues related to his living arrangement and spending decisions at EPA in Thursday’s congressional hearings. More than 100 Democrats have called for him to step down from the agency, but more Republicans have expressed concern about Pruitt’s financial decisions and relationships with lobbyists prior to taking over at the agency in recent days.
Some White House sources have expressed surprise that ahead of his day in the hot seat, Pruitt declined the White House’s help to prepare for the hearings. The EPA’s preparations have focused on policy questions, sources tell ABC News, and Pruitt’s opening statement released ahead of the hearing does not mention the growing ethics concerns.
“Congressional Hearings are an opportunity to reiterate the accomplishments of President Trump’s EPA, which includes: working to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan and WOTUS, providing regulatory certainty, and declaring a war on lead – all while returning to Reagan-era staffing levels,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement.
Pruitt’s opening statement includes information about the EPA’s proposed budget cuts, saying that the agency will focus on being “careful stewards of taxpayer resources.”
Inhofe, whose own former aide was just sworn in as the number two at the agency, has been a strong supporter of Pruitt but told the Times he is concerned about possible ethical lapses when Pruitt was attorney general in Oklahoma. Inhofe called Pruitt a “friend” and “neighbor” when he introduced him during his confirmation hearing — both men lived in Tulsa — and shares Pruitt’s philosophy that the EPA should have a limited role and should leave more decisions to the states.
But Inhofe told the Times that he was not aware of some of the allegations that have surfaced about Pruitt’s actions and that the EPA chief should have to answer questions about the reports.
“I want to check and see how authentic the accusations against him are. If they are authentic it could have an effect,” he told the Times. “But something things are not all that authentic.”
The senator also told Politico earlier this week that multiple members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, of which he is a member, say there should be a hearing on the various accusations around Pruitt.
The chairman of that panel, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, told ABC News that he is holding off on a hearing until the White House completes its own review of ethical concerns around the administrator. The White House has not said specifically what its inquiry includes but press secretary Sarah Sanders has said they’re looking into “some of the allegations” and reports about Pruitt.
Four Republicans have publicly called for Pruitt to resign over the concerns about his decisions as EPA chief and more have criticized the recent controversies as a distraction. The GOP Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., has called for the EPA to hand over documents and make aides available for on-the-record interviews with the committee.
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