“I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on housing and security and travel,” she said. “Instead of seeing articles about efforts to return your agency to its core mission, I’m reading articles about your interactions with the industries that you regulate. Some of this undoubtedly is a result of the ‘gotcha’ age, but I do think there are legitimate questions that need to be answered.”
Sharper words from Democrats
Senator Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the full appropriations committee, drew laughter when he questioned Mr. Pruitt’s claim that he was required by his security detail to fly first class because of threats to his life, saying “Nobody even knew who you were.”
“You have to fly first class? Oh come on,” Mr. Leahy said. He said Mr. Pruitt had become “a laughingstock.”
Senator Leahy told Mr. Pruitt he should be protecting the air and water rather than “big polluters” and “industry friends.”
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico said he had asked the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate whether the E.P.A. acted improperly when it appeared to mock Democrats on Twitter after the Senate voted to confirm the agency’s second-in-command, Andrew Wheeler.
The tweet, sent from the agency’s official account on April 13, said, “The Senate does its duty: Andrew Wheeler confirmed by Senate as deputy administrator of @EPA. The Democrats couldn’t block the confirmation of environmental policy expert and former EPA staffer under both a Republican and a Democrat president.”
Mr. Udall asked the accountability office to issue a legal opinion on whether the tweet violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda.
Mr. Udall also noted that the G.A.O. found that the E.P.A. had violated federal laws when Mr. Pruitt’s office purchased and installed a $43,000 secure phone booth. “I have a lot of questions for you on this topic,” Senator Udall said. “One month later you haven’t followed the law by reporting to congress or the president, your boss, how you let this happen and how you plan to fix it.”
He called on Mr. Pruitt to resign.
Throwing a lifeline
As Democrats continued to level accusations against Mr. Pruitt, Senator Murkowski asked the administrator, “Do you have anything you would like to add in response?” It was a move we’ve seen before: citing concern in an opening statement about Mr. Pruitt’s spending and ethical issues but then allowing Mr. Pruitt to issue an open-ended defense.
In response Mr. Pruitt denied, as he did before two different House panels last month, that he was to blame.
“I would not make the same decisions again,” he said, without detailing which ones. But, he noted, in some cases the E.P.A. was not organized in a way to prevent spending abuses. He specifically cited the secure phone booth, saying, “There were not proper controls early to ensure a legal review.”
Mr. Pruitt said he had introduced a new process afterward to ensure that any expenditure over $5,0000 must be approved by the E.P.A. chief of staff and chief financial officer.
A silent protest
A woman in the audience held up a sign that read “Mr. Corrupt” as Mr. Pruitt began his opening statement. A Capitol Police officer told her that if she did that again she would be escorted out of the hearing room. She put down the sign.
Minutes later, a group of people wearing green shirts saying “Fire Pruitt” stood up and walked silently out of the room.