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Embattled EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt To Testify Before 2 House Panels

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, would like you to know that he's been cutting back regulations. A statement put out ahead of congressional testimony today says Pruitt has been working to repeal President Obama's initiatives like the Clean Power Plan. But a pair of EPA budget hearings today seem likely to focus not just on Pruitt's policies but also his own behavior. The administrator faces questions about first-class travel and renting a condo linked to an energy lobbyist and installing a soundproof booth in his office and approving extra-high salaries for two aides and more. One lawmaker who will question Pruitt is Democrat Paul Tonko of New York who told us earlier today that he wants Pruitt to testify under oath.

PAUL TONKO: Well, I think there is this mounting bit of reporting that indicates that there's been gross misconduct and unethical behavior and misuse of taxpayer funds and an abuse of power. And I think that, you know, these are important elements to get answers that we need to drill down on this. I would love to dwell on the mission statement or the lack of addressing the mission statement of the agency and the dismantling of some very important programs. But we also have to get to that misconduct. We have to get to those reports. There's been an avalanche of that reporting, and I think he needs to address it.

INSKEEP: Does your chairman say that you will be able to have him under oath?

TONKO: I believe that we - I haven't asked him directly, but I believe that will be the case.

INSKEEP: OK. So you just mentioned a couple of interesting things there. We alluded to the allegations of misconduct. You said the mission statement. I guess you're getting at the fundamental question of whether Pruitt supports this agency or wants to take it apart.

TONKO: Right. I think it's a very bold mission. It's an agency that bears great importance and relevance to not only our present moment but to future generations. And we talk about making cleaner the air we breathe and safer the water we drink and, you know, addressing toxins that may be finding their way into our environment or into products. The EPA is an important agency in regard to protecting the people of this nation and to addressing the public health.

INSKEEP: Now, in this statement that the administrator put out last night, he alluded not only to cutting back regulation but declaring war on lead. That's something that he says he wants to do, is to have less lead in the water. Is there a case to be made that his agency still is doing important environmental work, even if he doesn't accept climate science and some other...

TONKO: Well, no. I think when you look at - it's great that he talks about lead. We all have a concern about lead and the impact, especially on the development of young people. But, you know, it's not just walking away from climate change and denying science. It's dismantling the Clean Power Plan, which is a large producer - the power sector is a large producer of contaminants and greenhouse gases, carbon pollution. But it's also, you know, the impact that we've had with CAFE standards, on doing that strengthener that comes via the transportation sector. There's a lot of...

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. CAFE standards - that has to do with...

TONKO: Absolutely. But there...

INSKEEP: ...Auto emissions. Right.

TONKO: You know, the list goes on and on of things that he's undoing. And I'm concerned about the impact, Steve, of the morale of the agency. You have consummate professionals who have made it a work life's journey to make certain that the outcome for the general public is vastly improved. They're driven by that. They're passionate. And I look at the people leaving, the institutional memory of the institution that is impacted to the negative, the science advisory boards that have been weakened. There was such a structure there that responded to both our environment and our economy. Because this myth that you can't - you can either be an environmentalist or grow the economy - that is a myth. We can do both. And he has just walked away from that mission statement.

INSKEEP: So we listed a number of occasions where Pruitt has been accused of spending money in ways that people would question. What is one incident that you would want to drill down on?

TONKO: Well, certainly, there's the concern about condominiums that are given sweetheart deals for him. And...

INSKEEP: Oh, this condo that he stayed at in his early...

TONKO: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Period.

TONKO: ...And the connection that it has to lobbyists. People appearing before the department are actually offering him sweetheart deals. These are gross conflicts of interest. And it shows, again, unethical behavior. And before we can move forward, we have to drill down on the character here, on the integrity. I think it's so important that, with this avalanche of concern being expressed, that we get to the bottom of all of it.

INSKEEP: Do you accept the EPA administrator's argument that he needed a soundproof booth for secure phone calls?

TONKO: You know, again, millions of dollars spent for this man for travel, for security, for additional externalities that he required - you know, this is coming at the expense of a budget that is geared or meant to go to the betterment of our environment, the sounder conditions for quality of life for the people of this country.

INSKEEP: So you don't think that he needed a soundproof booth?

TONKO: Oh, I think that a lot of it is extravagance.

INSKEEP: Congressman, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

TONKO: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Paul Tonko is a Democrat congressman from upstate New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUKE VIBERT'S "RIDMIK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.