So far, many Senate Republicans have steered clear of criticizing Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt over his controversial spending and management decisions.
But now the top Republican on the committee overseeing the EPA is taking a tougher line on the embattled administrator.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) sent a barbed letter to Pruitt questioning whether he is complying with public records requests -- given that the EPA chief has maintained four different email addresses during his tenure.
“During your confirmation hearing, I specifically asked you from ‘refrain from taking any action -- that makes it difficult or impossible for the public to access your official written communications under the Freedom of Information Act,’” Barrasso wrote Pruitt in a letter Friday, The Post's Juliet Eilperin reports this morning. “You agreed to my request.”
As The Washington Post first reported last week, three of Pruitt's four emails do not follow EPA’s conventional format. Agency lawyers have raised concerns that not all of them are being searched during Freedom of Information Act requests. “Can you affirm that the EPA does in fact search all your official email accounts when responding to FOIA requests?” Barrasso said in the letter.
Barasso's move to join Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Tom Carper (Del.), in scrutinizing Pruitt may give other Republicans cover to criticize the EPA chief more openly.
Until this week, Barrasso held back from criticizing any of Pruitt’s actions while in office, choosing instead to praise his efforts to roll back regulations he considers harmful to businesses. Just last month, Pruitt had toured a coal mine in Wyoming with Barrasso.
While the EPA insisted that the agency searches all accounts in response to public records requests, Barrasso's letter is a sign he may rev up congressional oversight.
After all, the emails are not the only issue on Barrasso's radar. On Monday, he also raised concern the Government Accountability Office’s finding that the EPA violated federal spending laws by failing to notify Congress before installing a private phone booth in Pruiit’s office last year at a cost of $43,000.
The law caps redecoration, furnishing or other improvements to Pruitt’s office at $5,000. While the EPA argued the booth should not be subject to the cap, the GAO did not buy those arguments. The GAO also found the agency violated the federal Antideficiency Act.
"It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending tax payer dollars," Barrasso said in a statement. "EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.”
As more government watchdogs come out with reports about Pruitt's behavior, the pressure on Republicans to take a stand will only intensify.
On Monday, the EPA's inspector general released an interim report that found the EPA gave raises to three of Pruitt's aides through an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act — one more pay bump than what was originally made public.
Pruitt’s chief of staff signed off on controversial raises for three top political staffers, Bloomberg reports.
The report said Ryan Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, authorized the pay raises worth tens of thousands of dollars — a funding that initially seems to support Pruitt’s insistence he did not know about the raises. Documents show Jackson signed off on the salary hikes under “action requested by Ryan T. Jackson, chief of staff" and "action authorized by E. Scott Pruitt, administrator," in one place signing as "Ryan Jackson for Scott Pruitt."
The two federal reports published Monday gave Pruitt critics “fresh ammunition,” as Politico reports. Following the reports, the Post's editorial board piles on by writing "it becomes ever more astonishing that an administrator so clearly unfit for service continues to lead a crucial federal agency."
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— What happens in Vegas... will be included in an inspector general's report: Interior's internal watchdog said Monday the $12,375 charter flight Ryan Zinke took from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana in June 2017 “could have been avoided.” While investigators determined Zinke’s use of chartered flights "generally followed relevant law, policy, rules, and regulations," the inspector general's office found the Las Vegas leg of Zinke's trip may have been rejected if department officials knew the real reason for his Sin City visit, which was to give a speech to the Golden Knights, an NHL team owned by one of Zinke's former campaign donors, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports.
Ethics officials were also not made aware of Zinke’s ties to the host of the speech. “[H]ad ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion,” it noted.
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In a statement, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said: "As a radio host, (Zinke) had many guests on his program who expressed a variety of views and opinions. Mr. Zinke would always challenge his guests to defend their opinions regardless of the topic and no matter how controversial."
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— Tots against Scott: Eight young Florida residents filed a lawsuit against Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) on Monday for ignoring the impact of climate change and for supporting Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Eight young Florida residents — the youngest is 10, the oldest is 20, and one is a University of Miami marine science student— are the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit that seeks to force a state extremely vulnerable to climate-driven sea rise to start work on a court-ordered, science-based ‘Climate Recovery Plan,’ the Miami Herald reports. Scott is seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
— Coal boss vs. the GOP: West Virginia GOP Senate candidate Don Blankenship compared Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to Russians, charging him with interfering with the election. “McConnell should not be in the U.S. Senate, let alone be the Republican Majority Leader. He is a Swamp captain,” Blankenship said in a statement, per Politico. “The Russians and McConnell should both stop interfering with elections outside their jurisdictions.” A super PAC linked with GOP leadership has been running ads against Blankenship, a former coal executive convicted of willfully violating mine safety and health standards
Thank you for the warm welcome to India, @USAmbIndia and @USAndIndia. The embassy’s continued support of #USIndia #EnergyPartners🇺🇸🇮🇳 is pivotal to America’s #NewEnergyRealism. #USIndiaScience #Energy pic.twitter.com/5wP1wnKEJR— Rick Perry (@SecretaryPerry) April 16, 2018
— Where in the world is Rick Perry? The energy secretary went to India just as the Asian nation begins importing liquefied natural gas from the United States.
At home, the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy announced Monday that Shawn Bennett had been appointed as deputy assistance secretary for oil and natural gas, a long open vacancy since Trump took office. Bennett had previously served as the executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a lobbying group.
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— Brand update: Volkswagen is planning to change its namesake VW logo for the first time since 2012, per Bloomberg, as the company pushes toward its electric efforts and tries to recovery from the diesel-cheating scandal. The logo will be released next year.
— Strengthening cyber: The Energy Department is offering $25 million in grants for projects that will assess how to make the energy sector more resilient to cyberattacks, less than a month after such attacks crippled communications for pipeline operators. Project applications are open until June 18, the department said in a Monday statement.
— New study gives nuke defenders ammunition: The anticipated closure of four nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania will dramatically affect efforts to reduce carbon emissions and will also cause a jump in electricity prices for consumers, according to a new study. Research from the Brattle Group found “keeping the Ohio and Pennsylvania nuclear plants running would avoid more than 21 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually,” the Washington Examiner reports, adding “if these nuclear plants remained open, customers’ annual gross electricity costs could be as much as $400 million lower in Ohio and $285 million in Pennsylvania.”
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on the operational needs of the National Park Service.
- The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads and Hazardous Materials holds a hearing on the oversight of the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2015.
- The House Science, Space and Technology Committee holds a markup.
- Politico holds an event on the future of renewable energy.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a discussion on addressing climate change.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on FERC .
- The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the U.S. Forest Service 2019 budget on Wednesday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on protecting groundwater on Wednesday.
- Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development holds a hearing on the budget estimates for 2019 for the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation on Wednesday.
- The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy holds a webinar on Thursday.
- The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies holds an event on the environmental risks of oil and gas retrieval on Thursday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on rural energy challenges and opportunities on Thursday.
- Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy’s annual energy summit is on Thursday.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a hearing on Thursday.
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