Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt acknowledged Wednesday that one of his top aides helped him search for housing last year — a potential violation of federal law — but said she had done so ‘‘on personal time.’’
The admission came during a Senate budget hearing, which including sharp questions from Democrats about the administrator’s ethics and spending decisions. Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee focused largely on the agency’s policy actions.
Three Democratic senators — Tom Udall of New Mexico, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont — devoted the bulk of their time to asking Pruitt about actions that have prompted more than a dozen probes by EPA’s Office of Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office, and the White House itself.
Leahy belittled Pruitt’s claim that he needed to fly first class because of security concerns. ‘‘Nobody even knew who you were. . . . You have to fly first class? Oh c’mon,’’ Leahy said. Such decisions had made Pruitt and the EPA ‘‘a laughingstock,’’ he added.
Udall, describing Pruitt’s management of the agency as ‘‘disastrous,’’ again called on Pruitt to resign. The former Oklahoma attorney general, he said, has treated his ‘‘position of public trust as a golden ticket for extravagant travel and fine dining.’’
At one point, the lawmaker asked Pruitt to provide details on how he had enlisted aide Millan Hupp to help locate local apartment rentals for him last summer. The Washington Post first reported last month that Hupp, who now serves as EPA’s head of scheduling and advance, contacted a Washington real estate firm and individual homeowners to view properties. Pruitt’s office boosted Hupp’s salary to $114,590 in March, but reversed the raise after it attracted scrutiny.
Pruitt, who did not refer to Hupp by name but called her ‘‘a longtime friend,’’ said that when it came to her assistance, ‘‘it’s my understanding that all activity there was on personal time.’’ He added that he did not pay her for this service.
‘‘Then that’s a gift, that’s a violation of federal law,’’ Udall said, noting that subordinates of federal officials are prohibited from providing free services to their bosses.
Part of Hupp’s search took place during office hours, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. Both of them, as well as Capitol Hill resident Laurie Solnik, who showed her apartment to Pruitt at Hupp’s request, said Hupp primarily used a personal e-mail account and phone to conduct the search.
According to Don Fox, former acting director and general counsel for the Office of Government Ethics, this activity violates ‘‘a general prohibition against misusing government resources’’ regardless of what time of day Hupp did the work.
Some GOP senators praised Pruitt’s policy performance and did not raise any objections over his spending. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Mississippi Republican, said she was ‘‘most impressed’’ with his push to ease regulations and clean up a contaminated site in her state.
‘‘You have taken a common-sense approach to the environmental regulatory process,’’ Hyde-Smith said.
For his part, Pruitt took the same approach as he did in a pair of contentious House hearings last month, largely steering clear of addressing the dozen probes he is facing on topics such as the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office, a cut-rate condo rental from a lobbyist last year, and his domestic and international travel expenses.
Under his watch, Pruitt argued, the EPA had made ‘‘enormous progress’’ on President Trump’s agenda, ‘‘stripping burdensome costs from the economy’’ without sacrificing environmental protections.