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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pruitt Under Fire On Capitol Hill

Air Date: Week of

Scott Pruitt’s days as EPA Administrator could be numbered. Many lawmakers have called for him to resign, and 10 federal inquiries are underway into his security practices, travel expenses and other issues. (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt faces allegations of legal and ethical violations, including allegedly illegal spending on a soundproof phone booth and a cozy condo deal with an energy lobbyist. Democrats recruited a record number of federal lawmakers for a joint resolution calling for a cabinet resignation – 39 Senators and 140 House members. Republicans won’t sign, though some also want him out. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) is leading the push and tells host Steve Curwood he’s frustrated by the lack of oversight in the Republican-led Congress, and concerned by EPA’s regulatory rollbacks that he says endanger Americans’ health.


CURWOOD: From PRI, and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Republican support to seems to be waning for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, under fire for lavish spending and alleged legal and ethical violations. Calling some of Mr. Pruitt’s actions and reported misappropriations quote ‘indefensible,’ Republican senator John Kennedy of Louisiana told Politico, ‘You just can’t put lipstick on those pigs. You can’t.’

And while a number of other Republicans, including Mr. Pruitt’s powerful patron Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe have raised questions about the EPA chief, the majority still remain silent. Not so for most Hill Democrats. As we record this, some 140 House members and 39 senators, all caucussing with Democrats, have signed on to a non-binding resolution introduced by Representative Kathy Castor of Florida and Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico calling for Mr. Pruitt’s resignation. Senator Udall’s resolution states Mr. Pruitt is unfit for office, not only for apparent legal and ethical lapses, but also for policies that fail to protect the environment.

UDALL: Our resolution is truly historic. It represents the most Senators to ever sign onto a resolution calling for a Cabinet official's resignation. The resolution sends a clear message: The American people have no confidence in Scott Pruitt, and it's time for him to go.

CURWOOD: Congress can’t fire Administrator Pruitt without going through the full impeachment process so practical politics says his tenure is in the hands of President Trump. And Senator Udall says every day Mr. Pruitt remains on the job, Americans are endangered.

UDALL: Well, first of all in the public health arena and the worker safety arena, he's very bad. In the water resources area, he has major problems there, and air quality ... real problem. So, these are things that I have cared about from the beginning of my public service. I will keep fighting for them. Unfortunately, we have a person in the office of administrator of the EPA who does not care about them. He's working against us, and he's doing so in such a way that he's hurting millions of Americans right where it hurts in terms of public health, worker safety and air quality.

Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) has served in the U.S. Senate since 2009. (Photo: Office of Senator Tom Udall)

CURWOOD: Now, what's your view of the opinion held by some that Mr. Pruitt took the job so he could specifically do the bidding of industry? The chemical industry is concerned about rules. The energy industry concerned about global warming and so on and so forth – that he was put there to unwind as many possible regulations and responsibilities as possible.

UDALL: Well, that has been the president's policy. As you know, the president had a very strong policy in terms of undermining what he called the deep state. My view of the deep state is these are career scientists and public health people who really want to do right by the American people. So, he got his assignment from the President and then here he is, a state attorney general who spent his whole time suing the EPA. He comes in, and my understanding is 59 of the top positions, one-third of those are filled by people from the industry, that worked in the industry, and now they're on the regulatory side and there's been very little disclosure and I think there are some real ethical problems there on that too.

CURWOOD: Now, to what extent do you think that administrator Pruitt has violated the law? What's he doing that's illegal in your view?

UDALL: Well, the General Accounting Office has announced that the $43,000 soundproof booth in his office was a violation of law, and they are referring that further down the line, and we are going to follow closely what the outcome is there. I think it's clear as a matter of law he should have notified the Congress if he was going to spend that kind of money, so that Congress could have had some input. But he didn't, and he broke the law.

CURWOOD: How has his perceived ethical lapses compromised his ability to do his job, do you think?

UDALL: Well, I don't think there's any doubt that his ability to do his job is compromised because of his ethics. He seems to be willing to push the envelope on almost everything he's doing, especially ethical behavior. For example, he chose a lobbyist to rent a house from in Washington for $50 a night when in that particular area anybody running a room would cost $150, and the lobbyist had an issue before his agency, the EPA. Very questionable behavior.

CURWOOD: Now, Senator, all the signers of your resolution are Democrats, yet there are some Republican lawmakers – I'm thinking of Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, Carlos Curbello who heads the climate caucus there in the House, and a couple of other Republicans have also called for Administrator Pruitt to resign or be fired. Why didn't the resolution gain their support? Why not make this bipartisan?

UDALL: Members on both sides of the aisle know we need a new EPA administrator. We're expressing that in a number of different ways. This resolution is just one of the ways. As you know, Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey came out in support of Pruitt resigning, Susan Collins in the Senate. The numbers are growing and we anticipate at some point the Republicans will start joining our sense of the Senate resolution.

Andrew Wheeler testifying before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Wednesday, November 8, 2017. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, was confirmed by the Senate on April 12, 2018 as the second-in-command under Scott Pruitt. (Photo: Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works)

CURWOOD: Now, one of the Republicans said Congresswoman's Stefanik of New York said that she didn't think that these resolutions would be brought up certainly on the House side. How true is it that the speaker and majority leader won't move to let this be voted?

UDALL: I think in the Republican Congress, they are very reluctant to take on President Trump. They would much rather protect him by not holding hearings, by not bringing up resolutions that could be embarrassing, and they're not doing their oversight. The big problem here is that Congress is supposed to do oversight of the executive branch, and that means regardless of party, you step up to the plate, you do your job. They aren't doing their jobs in this circumstance.

CURWOOD: Now, Senator, under the Constitution actually, Mr. Pruitt could be removed by Congress if he were found guilty of a crime. How possible is that, or is that just beyond the pale politically right now?

UDALL: Well, I think the more likely course will be that the Republicans will visit with the Trump White House and say this guy's been around too long, he's hurting us, you've got to get rid of him. We know there have already been a lot of those discussions, I know that privately talking to Republicans. In the White House right now there have been discussions about Pruitt leaving. They haven't reached the point that we think they should, but I think it's building and I think this has a snowball effect. As soon as we compile a somewhat complete list, more issues come out. I just can't believe he's still there to tell you the truth.

CURWOOD: How did this happen? How did a man like Scott Pruitt become head of the Environmental Protection Agency? How did we get there?

UDALL: Well, it all flows from President Trump. He clearly was indicating that many of the regulations that are in place, many of the laws that are in place. He was going to do everything he could to stand on the industry side, and that's why they thought up this term, the deep state, and they said, well, we're going to destroy the deep state and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that business is now in charge of the agenda, which I think is a is a very unfortunate place to be, especially for American citizens who looked to this agency when it was set up, bipartisan signed into law by President Nixon. There was this huge expectation that the Environmental Protection Agency would do the good work protecting the American people, and really we have a president and an administrator who aren't interested in that.

CURWOOD: Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico has served in the United States Senate since 2008. Senator Udall, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

UDALL: Thank you very much.



The Resolutions calling for Administrator Pruitt’s resignation (S.Res.473/H.Res.834)

POLITICO: “Pruitt Dodges Blame”

The New York Times: “Expenses, Emails and a Phone Booth: The Investigations Faced by Scott Pruitt”

Bloomberg: “White House Deterring Republicans From Defending Pruitt, Sources Say”

The Washington Post: “Senate confirms a former coal lobbyist as Scott Pruitt’s second-in-command at EPA”

POLITICO: “The Myth of Scott Pruitt’s EPA Rollback”

The New York Times: “Scott Pruitt Before the E.P.A.: Fancy Homes, a Shell Company and Friends With Money”

About Senator Tom Udall

Read about the Udall family’s legacy of environmental protection


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