WASHINGTON (AP) — Embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said he doesn't remember asking his security detail to use lights and sirens to speed his government-owned SUV through Washington traffic, even as Democratic senators disclosed an internal email saying he did.
The email written in February 2017 by then-EPA special agent Pasquale "Nino" Perrotta has the subject line "Lights and Sirens" and added "Btw - Administrator encourages the use."
Pruitt later promoted Perrotta to lead his personal protective detail. Former EPA officials have told The Associated Press that Pruitt made the change after Perrotta's predecessor refused to use lights and sirens in non-emergency situations, such as when the administrator was running late for dinner reservations or going to the airport.
Under sharp questioning by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on a Senate appropriations subcommittee that questioned Pruitt on Wednesday, the EPA chief denied making the request.
"I don't recall that happening," Pruitt said, adding that he was confident his security team followed the applicable policies.
It was one of several instances during Wednesday's hearing that Pruitt either said he couldn't recall details about requests he made regarding his personal security or where he blamed subordinates for making those decisions.
Two weeks ago, Pruitt announced Perrotta's early retirement amid questions about whether he improperly recommended a business partner for an EPA security contract and outside work he performed as a private investigator for a tabloid newspaper.
The panel's chairman, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, kicked off the hearing by expressing concern that allegations over Pruitt's ethical missteps are overshadowing the Trump administration's pro-business regulatory rollbacks.
"I'm being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on security and on housing and on travel. I'm reading about your interactions with representatives of the industries that you regulate" Murkowski told Pruitt at a hearing normally expected to focus on budget matters.
Udall also cited the Government Accountability Office's finding in April that Pruitt's purchase of a $43,000 private office booth for telephone calls broke federal law because the EPA failed to notify Congress in advance of an expenditure over $5,000.
Udall accused Pruitt of continuing to flout legal requirements to inform lawmakers about that and other big-ticket spending, and "treating your position of public trust as a golden ticket for extravagant travel and fine dining."
Pruitt had some success batting away ethics questions lobbed by Democrats when he appeared before two House panels last month, but on Wednesday the senators hammered the EPA chief with prosecutor-like follow up questions.
Protesters sitting behind Pruitt silently rose up twice in the first minutes of the hearing, once waving signs and once simply standing up in unison, wearing green T-shirts with slogans saying "Impeach Pruitt."
The EPA chief has been the subject of a steady stream of damaging headlines in recent months, including revelations from the EPA's inspector general this week that Pruitt requested and received 24-hour security beginning his first day in office. That challenges Pruitt's account that the round-the-clock security was a result of threats against him after taking office.
On Wednesday, Pruitt repeatedly dodged directly answering whether he requested the stepped-up security coverage, saying career EPA officials made the decision.
The Associated Press reported last month that Pruitt's preoccupation with his safety came at a steep cost to taxpayers, as his swollen security detail blew through overtime budgets and at times diverted officers away from investigating environmental crimes. Altogether, the agency has spent about $3 million on Pruitt's 20-member full-time security detail, which is more than three times the size of his predecessor's part-time security contingent.
Despite the mounting investigations, President Donald Trump has said he supports Pruitt. Asked Friday if he still had confidence in the EPA chief, Trump told reporters, "I do."
At one of the House hearings last month, Pruitt spoke broadly of taking responsibility for changes at his agency, and said he had "made changes" in his practice of first- and business-class travel. Perrotta drafted a memo last year saying Pruitt needed to fly in premium class seats because of security threats.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not respond to a question from AP on Tuesday about whether Pruitt was now flying coach.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told Pruitt he was a walking example of "ego run amok," calling him an embarrassment to the agency he leads. The senior senator called "silly" Pruitt's claims he needed to fly in first class after unpleasant interactions with other travelers.
"Nobody even knows who you are," Leahy told the EPA chief. "We want environmental protections that work. Forget about your own ego and your first class travel and your special phone booths that just make you a laughingstock and your agency a laughingstock."
Follow Associated Press environmental writer Ellen Knickmeyer at http://twitter.com/KnickmeyerEllen and investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck