May 17, 2018

Time to Wake Up: Cheapening by the Dozen

Mr. President, I am here today for my 206th ‘‘Time to Wake Up’’ speech. For colleagues who may be having a hard time keeping up with the ethical scandals swirling around Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, I thought today I would lay them out one by one.

I think we all heard Donald Trump’s pledge to drain the swamp and to put an end to government corruption. That hasn’t exactly worked out; has it? Instead, swamp creatures abound, and Pruitt, a longtime enemy of the Agency he now runs and a longtime toady of the fossil fuel industry he is supposed to regulate, is absolutely wallowing in the swamp.

Indeed, he is so swampy that he now faces more than a dozen Federal and State probes exploring how he has been advancing his own interests and those of his polluter donors.

So let’s take a look.

Investigation No. 1 is travel expenses. Between March and May of 2017—just that short period—Mr. Pruitt spent 43 out of those 92 days traveling to his home State of Oklahoma. Pruitt appears to have conducted little or no official business on many of these trips. Yet taxpayers still picked up the tab. Last summer the EPA inspector general opened its inquiry into this use of official resources.

That inquiry has actually since been expanded to examine the overall frequency, cost, and extent of the Administrator’s travel. Over a 6- month period in 2017, Pruitt is estimated to have racked up nearly $200,000 in travel expenses. This includes a $7,000 business-class flight to Italy and $58,000 spent on military and charter flights. One set of flights to Oklahoma on a chartered private jet cost over $14,000 alone.

Also under scrutiny is a 4-day trip that Mr. Pruitt, his staff, and his security detail took to Morocco in December. I hear it is lovely in Morocco in December, but it cost taxpayers more than $100,000 to indulge Mr. Pruitt. EPA first justified the trip by saying that Pruitt was there to promote the U.S. liquefied natural gas industry. That is actually not in EPA’s mission—but never mind.

Pruitt himself then testified before the House that he was there to negotiate part of a freetrade agreement. Again, that is not part of EPA’s mission. Plus, there is no evidence that Pruitt even conferred with our Trade Representative. You would think that he might have picked up the phone to give himself just a little bit of cover if that was going to be his story. It was eventually reported that Pruitt’s Morocco junket was largely arranged by a lobbyist friend who later was paid $40,000 a month— $40,000 a month—retroactively to January 1, to represent the Moroccan government.

Pruitt’s frequent international travel plans are heavily influenced by lobbyists and rightwing donors. His trip to Rome appears to have been largely orchestrated by the head of the Federalist Society, and it included dinner at a five-star hotel with Cardinal George Pell, who has been under investigation for multiple allegations of child sexual assault. The cardinal is a climate denier. So maybe that makes it all OK for Pruitt.

A planned trip to Australia was organized by a consultant and former lobbyist for foreign governments. Another planned trip to Israel appears to have been at least in part scheduled to allow him to promote a water purification company recommended by Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson. Reports say Pruitt actually gave his staff a bucket list of places he wanted to visit at public expense, and he told them to arrange pretexts for his travels.

A lot of the cost of these trips is Pruitt’s security detail. That takes us in to investigation Nos. 2, 3, and 4, which stem from Administrator Pruitt’s over-the-top spending on security measures.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general and the House oversight committee are both investigating this spending, including almost $3 million that Pruitt has spent on his 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, 20-person security detail. This security phalanx accompanies him everywhere—on personal travel home to Oklahoma and on family trips to the Rose Bowl and Disneyland. Pruitt’s security detachment is more than three times as large as previous EPA Administrators, none of whom had 24/7 protection. Many of the agents assigned to Pruitt’s security team are pulled from EPA’s enforcement arm, leaving fewer agents to actually investigate environmental crimes.

But they do help him to get to fancy Washington restaurants fast, using lights and sirens to expedite Pruitt’s travel to his dinner dates.

Pruitt has also fortified his office. He installed a $43,000 cone-of-silence, supersecret phone booth. He had biometric locks installed on his office doors and had his office swept for bugs—a no-bid job, by the way, that went to a business partner of the guy who was then his top security agent. The Agency even explored spending $70,000 on a bulletproof desk for him. All he is missing is the secret decoder ring.

The evidence that Pruitt cites to justify all of this security spending, including business-class and first-class plane tickets he claimed were required by security concerns, is remarkably thin. When he testified last month before House appropriators, Pruitt claimed that it was all justified by the Agency’s inspector general. Well, on Monday, Senator CARPER and I heard directly from the inspector general, and the story is not as Pruitt testified.

Pruitt wanted 24/7 security starting on his first day as Administrator—not as a result of any threats and not because the inspector general told him that round-the-clock security was justified. The inspector general, in fact, never told him that. It is not the inspector general’s job. It looks like Administrator Pruitt misled two House committees when he testified.

Let’s move on to investigation No. 5, which involves an inspector general inquiry into a possible violation of antilobbying rules. Once you are on the Federal payroll exerting the responsibilities of government, you are not supposed to engage in lobbying. During an April 2017 meeting with the National Mining Association, Pruitt encouraged the group to press President Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

The GAO is also looking into improper lobbying activity after he appeared in a lobbying organization’s promotional video, opposing, by the way, the clean water rule. That GAO investigation is investigation No. 6.

Investigation No. 7 concerns an inspector general probe into Pruitt’s use of an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to circumvent the usual civil service process to hire and promote staff. Pruitt used this loophole to hire lobbyists to oversee EPA functions and to award huge raises to a couple of favorite political aides from his Oklahoma days. He did this even after the White House had rejected those proposed pay increases.

One of Pruitt’s closest aides may not have even shown up to work for 3 months. Imagine that—not showing up to work for 3 months despite drawing a nearly $180,000 salary. That is great work, if you can get it. Incredibly—and I mean that literally—Pruitt testified to the House that he didn’t know whether this senior aide was coming to work on not. You would think that after 3 months of not seeing this individual at work, you might have a clue. Well, the EPA inspector general can help the Administrator answer that question in the eighth investigation on the list.

Now, every good swamp creature needs a swamp den, and Scott Pruitt found himself just the place, paying $50 a night for a luxury Capitol Hill condo co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist. Both the EPA’s inspector general and the House oversight committee are investigating whether this below-market value housing arrangement constituted an illicit gift. If you have lost track, these are investigations Nos. 9 and 10.

By the way, when the story broke about his swamp den, Pruitt denied that this lobbyist lobbied EPA. Well, it turns out that Federal lobbying disclosures and internal emails show that this lobbyist did in fact lobby EPA, even meeting with Pruitt himself on behalf of an industry client and also pushing Pruitt to name people favored by his client to EPA science advisory boards.

That brings us to investigation No. 11. Pruitt has systemically tilted EPA’s science advisory committees toward his industry donors, replacing academic scientists with industry-tied representatives. The GAO is examining the role that Pruitt’s political appointees played in selecting industry connected members to replace expert scientists on science advisory boards.

Investigation No. 12 is unfolding back home in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Bar Association is looking into charges that Pruitt lied when he told our Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during his confirmation hearing last year that he had not conducted business using private email addresses as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

Well, it turns out that it looks like he did. Just last night, news broke that the EPA inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s use of private email accounts, including questions of whether the Agency is properly preserving records of the Administrator’s private emails and including those records in responses to Freedom of Information Act searches. That makes the 13th investigation.

So there you have it—a baker’s dozen so far of investigations into Pruitt’s conduct as EPA Administrator. Those are just the allegations that have ramped up to the level of an official investigation.

There are scores of other scandals roiling the EPA. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper, and you will be bombarded by stories of Pruitt’s truly swampy behavior.

There are thousands of pages of communications between Scott Pruitt and industry when he was attorney general of Oklahoma that the current attorney general of Oklahoma is fighting to prevent the public from seeing. There are millions of dollars of political fundraising by Scott Pruitt from the fossil fuel industry that he has never told us about. If he has withheld disclosures that bear on his conflicts of interest, new investigations could result.

While Scott Pruitt dodges full disclosure of all his swampy industry ties, he has let lobbyists and fossil fuel and chemical industry operatives infiltrate throughout the EPA. The Associated Press found that ‘‘nearly half of the political appointees hired at the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump have strong industry ties.’’ Pruitt rolled back an Obama rule controlling methane leaks after he met with oil executives at the Trump hotel in Washington. Pruitt halted environmental protections for an area in southwest Alaska just hours after meeting with the mining executives looking to dig a mine there. Pruitt’s EPA protected an emissions rule loophole for a trucking company shortly after Pruitt met with the company’s executives. It is government by ‘‘I know a guy,’’ with Pruitt as the polluters’ guy.

It is impossible not to notice the odor of self-dealing and corruption emanating from the Scott Pruitt EPA. When I talk about Pruitt with Rhode Islanders, they almost always ask me the same questions: How does he still have a job? Why hasn’t the President fired this guy?

One answer goes back to the President himself. When Pruitt’s scandals started to snowball last month, oil and gas magnate Harold Hamm, a billionaire patron of Scott Pruitt’s, lobbied President Trump to keep him on. Twenty-two polluter front groups, led by the infamous Heartland Institute, so-called, wrote a letter to President Trump lauding Pruitt’s what they call ‘‘positive record of reform unmatched by any of Pruitt’s predecessors.’’ Who is behind those 22 polluter front groups? Guess what. It is those climate denial champions, the Koch brothers,  to the tune of at least $87 million in funding.

The test in Trumptown is whether Harold Hamm and Charles and David Koch are happy. And they are. Polluters are free to pollute for free, and climate change gets scrubbed out of official communications. Big-spending polluters are happy, happy, happy, and that is why Scott Pruitt remains as EPA Administrator in the Trump swamp.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The words of Woodrow Wilson are still true today about legislative oversight. He said:

It is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government and to talk much about what it sees. It is meant to be the eyes and the voice, and to embody the wisdom and will of its constituents.

Our constituents—my constituents, anyway—are not just the big polluters like Harold Hamm and the Koch brothers. The polluters may have billions to spend in politics, which they do, but they have very different interests than the millions of regular Americans who look to EPA to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the climate we must inhabit. Where are the eyes and the voice in the present majority for these millions of Americans?

Our silence in the face of this flagrant corruption is deafening.

I yield the floor.