Senate committee targets Pruitt scandals in spending bill

Senate committee targets Pruitt scandals in spending bill
© Greg Nash

A Senate committee unanimously passed a spending bill Thursday with a non-binding provision taking aim at Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA moving ahead with science transparency rule by 'early next year' Overnight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections MORE for his recent ethics scandals.

In a non-binding report attached to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s bill to fund the EPA and the Interior Department in fiscal 2019, the lawmakers sought to further crack down on Pruitt’s alleged behavior.

“The Committee feels strongly that it is essential that agencies provided funding in this Act comply with all applicable ethics regulations. To that end, the Committee directs that none of the funds made available in this Act may be used in contravention of 5 CFR § 2635, the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch,” it reads.

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Since the language is in the committee report attached to the bill, it doesn't hold the weight of law and it isn't binding.

Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback MORE (N.M.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee that wrote the bill, pushed for the provision.

If the provision were to be in the main part of the bill, it would make it a violation of appropriations law for anyone at the EPA or Interior to break ethics regulations.

Violating appropriations law can carry numerous federal penalties, up to and including prison time.

Udall had wanted the ethics provision to be in the main part of the bill, but said he pulled back due to an agreement with Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week Bipartisan group of senators urges FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately Sinema touts bipartisan record as Arizona Democrats plan censure vote MORE (R-Alaska), the subpanel’s chairwoman, to avoid controversial policy provisions.

Udall made it clear that the provision is aimed squarely at Pruitt. Pruitt has been accused in recent months of numerous ethical and spending violations, like renting an apartment from a lobbyist below market rate, using his position and staff to get his wife a job and letting lobbyists plan his foreign travel.

“I’m appalled at the number of scandals piling up, especially at EPA. Frankly, it’s hard to keep track,” Udall said at the Thursday meeting in which the full committee unanimously voted to send the bill to the full Senate for consideration.

“While I would have preferred bill language, I think the report language we are including sends a strong message,” he continued.

“These are regulations that cover situations like the use of one’s position for private gain and the use of official time to perform official duties. I think it’s just common sense to make it clear in a spending bill that individuals entrusted with spending taxpayer dollars must maintain a basic level of ethical behavior.”

One of Pruitt’s scandals has already been found to have violated appropriations law.

The Government Accountability Office ruled in April that the $43,000 soundproof phone booth he had installed in his office violated a congressional cap of $5,000 on the costs of furnishing federal officials’ offices. 

The White House Office of Management and Budget is investigating the violation, and the EPA must send Congress a report on how it happened.

The Appropriations Committee passed the $35.85 billion Interior/EPA bill with no amendments.

With $600 million more than the fiscal 2018 spending level, the bill largely rejects President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE’s proposed massive cuts to the EPA and some other programs.

This story was updated at 1:36 p.m.