Scott Pruitt, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, just can’t answer yes-or-no questions. That’s one takeaway from one of today’s Congressional hearings, where Pruitt was grilled by lawmakers on his long list of ethical scandals. At one point, Pruitt even refused to answer the very simple question: “Are you the EPA administrator?” (He finally replied with a “yes” the third time he was asked.)
The hearings, one at the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the other at House Appropriations Committee, were technically organized to discuss the EPA’s proposed 2019 budget. But many questions, especially those asked by Democratic lawmakers, revolved around the several scandals that have marred Pruitt’s tenure. Those include shelling out $3 million on security since taking office, including during a personal trip to Disneyland; traveling first class on taxpayer money; and paying $43,000 for a soundproof booth for his office. (The Government Accountability Office determined that installing the pricey booth broke the law.)
a “political bloodsport”
Multiple times, the Republican lawmakers at the hearings tried to defend Pruitt, and steer the conversation away from the ethical lapses back to budget and policy. Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) called the accusations a “political bloodsport,” while Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) said Pruitt was a “victim of Washington politics.” But Democratic lawmakers kept at it, requesting that the EPA chief take responsibility for his lavish spending and the other scandals that have plagued the agency. For the most part, especially during the first hearing at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Pruitt failed to answer questions directly.
Here’s a few examples of the times Pruitt dodged yes-or-no questions that should have been very easy to answer:
- Earlier this month, it was revealed that Pruitt lied about approving significant salary bumps for two aides who had worked with him since before he took office, even though the White House opposed the request. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) asked Pruitt whether he authorized the EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson to sign documents on Pruitt’s behalf, authorizing the pay raises.
Tonko: “Did you, administrator, authorize Mr. Jackson to sign those documents for you?
Pruitt: “Congressman, those were delegated to Mr. Jackson.”
Tonko: “You did authorize him then, to sign them?”
Pruitt: “That decision was made by my staff…”
Tonko: “Yes or no? Did you authorize him?”
Pruitt: “There was delegation given in my authority.”
Tonko: “So that’s a yes?”
- Earlier this month, The New York Times revealed that at least five EPA officials who spoke up against Pruitt’s wasteful spending or management, suffered consequences. At the hearing, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) asked Pruitt about that.
Pallone: “It has been reported that at least five EPA employees were recently reassigned, demoted, or otherwise retaliated against after they raised concerned about your spending. Is that correct, yes or no?”
Pruitt: “I don’t ever recall a conversation to that end.”
Pallone: “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Pruitt: “You shouldn’t take it as a yes.”
- In December 2017, Pruitt appeared in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to defend the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office, despite the fact that the EPA office already has designated areas where private and sensitive phone calls can be made. At today’s hearing, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) questioned Pruitt about the unlawful spending.
DeGette: “You expressed your view that [the phone booth] was appropriate, correct? Yes or no?”
Pruitt: “I didn’t express that $43,000 was appropriate.”
DeGette: “You’re not gonna answer my question. Did you know at that time that this expenditure violated section 7-10 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act and the Antideficiency Act?”
Pruitt: “It’s actually...”
DeGette: “So, you’re not going to answer that question either. Do you know whether anyone of your staff knew that that expenditure violated these two laws? Yes or no?”
Pruitt: “The [Office of General Counsel] again has indicated that… their opinion is that it’s not a violation.”
DeGette: “So you’re not gonna answer that question.”
- Towards the end of the hearing, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) asked Pruitt to take responsibility for the several mishaps that have marred the EPA.
Luján: “Today, you repeatedly blamed your chief of staff, your chief counsel, career officials, and others. Yes or no, are you the EPA administrator?”
Pruitt: “I said in my opening statement, Congressman. And I didn’t blame anyone.”
Luján: “Mr. administrator, it’s just a simple yes-or-no question, sir. Are you the EPA administrator?”
Pruitt: “I said in my opening statement, that I take responsibility, I’ve made changes historically, I’m making changes going forward. And I’ve simply not failed to take responsibility, I’ve simply recited the fact of what’s occurring.”
Luján: “It’s a simple question, Mr. Pruitt. Are you the EPA administrator?”
Luján: “Do you run the EPA?”
Pruitt: “I do.”
Luján: “Yes or no: Are you responsible for the many many scandals plaguing the EPA?”
Pruitt: “I’ve responded to many of those questions today, with facts and information.”
Luján: “Are you able to answer in yes or no?”
Pruitt: “That’s not a yes-or-no answer, Congressman.”
Luján: “It’s pretty simple that it’s a yes-or-no answer.”
- Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) also questioned Pruitt about his excessive spending, especially about his first-class plane tickets and the $43,000 phone booth.
Eshoo: “Do you have any remorse about this? You can answer, yes or no.”
Pruitt: “I echo your comments.... I think that what you said about the importance of public trust...”
Eshoo: “No, I want you to answer me. I have two minutes. Yes or no? Do you have any remorse?”
Pruitt: “I think there are changes I made already…”
Eshoo: “Sir, you’re not going to outtalk me.”
Eshoo concluded her remarks: “This is not ‘dodge question’ day. We ask these questions on behalf of our constituents.” Except, it kind of was.