By Valerie Volcovici and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said on Wednesday that he now has a legal fund in place to help him fight off a growing list of allegations against him related to his spending and reported ethical missteps in office.
"It has been set up," Pruitt told the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies about the fund. He was speaking during a hearing that was meant to focus on the EPA's 2019 budget but that centered on questions about his conduct - including an allegation he had sought to be transported through traffic with flashing lights and sirens.
Pruitt has been under pressure from lawmakers in recent weeks over reports about his routine use of first-class travel, his 24/7 security detail, costly office renovations, and ties to industry - criticisms he called overblown on Wednesday.
He is still supported by President Donald Trump and most Republicans lawmakers, who have welcomed his efforts to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations that are seen by industry as overly burdensome.
At Wednesday's hearing with the 13-member panel, Democratic senators lambasted his record at the agency. Patrick Leahy of Vermont called his regulatory rollbacks and ethical controversies "unconscionable," and Tom Udall of New Mexico said his tenure at the EPA was "a betrayal of the American people."
Most of the committee's six Democratic members have vehemently opposed Pruitt's efforts to roll back climate and pollution regulations introduced under Democratic former President Barack Obama, and have seized on the controversies around Pruitt's conduct to call for his resignation.
SIRENS AND LIGHTS
Udall pressed Pruitt on reports that he had pushed his security agents to use flashing lights and sirens on agency vehicles on trips that were not emergencies.
"No, I don’t recall that," said Pruitt, when asked if he had personally requested the use of lights and sirens. Udall submitted for the record on an email released on Wednesday by Pruitt’s former security chief Nino Perrotta, who left the agency weeks ago. Udall said Perrotta wrote in the email that Pruitt had encouraged the use of the devices.
The controversies around Pruitt have triggered some 12 investigations by the EPA's inspector general, congressional committees and the White House. A Government Accountability Office probe concluded last month that the EPA had violated the law by spending $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth for Pruitt's office without first notifying lawmakers.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski – chair of the Appropriations subcommittee – said in her opening remarks that she welcomed some of Pruitt’s regulatory agenda but the ethics issues were a distraction.
"Unfortunately, I am concerned that many of the important policy efforts you are engaged in are being overshadowed," she said. "There are some legitimate questions that need to be answered," she said.
Pruitt told the panel that he understood the concerns, but added that "some of the criticism is unfounded and exaggerated."
Pruitt has also faced growing pressure from some Republican senators who are not on the panel over his handling of U.S. biofuels policy.
Senator Chuck Grassley, for example, said on Tuesday he would join lawmakers calling for Pruitt's ouster unless the EPA chief curbs the agency's use of waivers exempting refineries from their obligation to mix ethanol into fuel. The EPA has the authority to exempt small refineries if they can prove that complying would cause them economic hardship, but biofuels advocates, often from corn-growing states such as Grassley's Iowa, say overusing the waivers kills demand for ethanol.
Pruitt was also criticized for a tweet on April 13 by the EPA’s official account that cheered Senate approval of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as deputy administrator of the EPA and stated that "the Democrats couldn’t block the confirmation."
Udall said he had asked the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to investigate the EPA’s use of social media to send a politically driven Tweet. Under the Hatch Act, federal employees are banned from taking part in political activities.
Pruitt said the agency made a mistake. "I was unaware of the tweet and that shouldn’t have occurred. There shouldn’t have been mocking,” he said.
Some changes have been implemented at the EPA since some of the scandals broke, including the addition of a requirement that any spending over $5,000 needs to be signed off by several senior officials, Pruitt told the panel.
Pruitt has also said that he has stopped routinely flying first class, something the agency had previously defended as a way to help him avoid threats from the public.
On the legal defense fund, Pruitt said his attorney was working with the Government Accountability Office to make sure it was run properly. All donations to the fund would be published and available to the public, he said, and he committed “absolutely” not to accept any donations from lobbyists or companies that have business before the EPA.
When asked if he would commit to not accepting anonymous donations for the fund, Pruitt said his lawyers handle them and would follow official guidelines.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Marguerita Choy and Frances Kerry)