By Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan

 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt told lawmakers during a heated congressional hearing on Thursday that allegations of ethical missteps plaguing his tenure are untrue and are intended to derail President Donald Trump's agenda.

 

"Facts are facts and fiction is fiction," the embattled agency chief told a House of Representatives panel in the first of two hearings at which he appeared. "And a lie doesn't become true just because it appears in the front page of the newspaper."

 

Pruitt faced tough questions from Democrats and fellow Republicans in his high-stakes testimony as he seeks to avoid becoming the latest in a long list of Cabinet members and senior White House officials who have either quit or been fired by Trump. Pruitt often avoided being pinned down on specifics, or deflected responsibility onto his staff.

 

Trump administration officials have become frustrated by news reports on Pruitt ranging from his spending on first-class air travel and security, to his rental of a room in a high-end Washington condo linked to an energy lobbyist with business before the agency.

 

"Much of what has been targeted at me and my team has been half truths or, at best, stories that have been so twisted that they do not resemble reality," Pruitt testified.

"Let's have no illusions about what is really going on here," Pruitt added. "Those who attack the EPA and attack me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president's agenda and undermine this administration's priorities. I'm simply not going to let that happen."

The tumult in the administration was underscored earlier on Thursday when Trump's physician Ronny Jackson withdrew from consideration to head the Department of Veterans Affairs after allegations about misconduct mounted.

There are nearly a dozen pending investigations into Pruitt with the EPA inspector general, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the White House Office of Management and Budget, as well as the House oversight committee.

Democrats hammered Pruitt with rapid-fire "yes or no" questions about the scandals, at times calling his conduct shameful and embarrassing, and also castigated him for his moves to roll back environmental regulations the Trump administration has said hinder economic growth.

Representative Paul Tonko of New York, for example, ripped Pruitt for his "seemingly endless misconduct" and "what appears to be a propensity for grift." Fellow Democrat John Sarbanes of Maryland called Pruitt "the poster child for the abuse of the public trust."

Asked by one lawmaker about whether he was aware that the EPA's purchase of a $43,000 secure phone booth for his office violated spending laws before it was approved, Pruitt responded, "We are investigating this internally."

The GAO this month said the EPA violated the law by installing the soundproof booth without telling lawmakers first. Pruitt confirmed he requested the secure line in his office, but never approved the price tag.

Pruitt has drawn praise from conservatives and scorn from environmentalists during his EPA tenure for rolling back Democratic former President Barack Obama's policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other green regulations opposed by industry.

'INNUENDO AND MCCARTHYISM'

Representative David McKinley of West Virginia was among some Republican lawmakers expressing support for Pruitt, saying the hearing was a "classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism," a reference to a 1950s-era campaign to root out communists.

Republican Gregg Harper of Mississippi decried what he saw as the "political bloodsport" of going after Trump administration officials. But Harper, like several Democrats, raised concerns about reports that whistleblowers who brought some of Pruitt's spending issues to light were removed or reassigned.

"There's no truth to the assertion that positions have been reassigned. I'm not aware of that ever happening," Pruitt said.

Republicans Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania and Leonard Lance of New Jersey quizzed Pruitt on EPA spending for his first-class flights - estimated to have cost taxpayers more than $100,000 - and security team.

"I've reviewed your answers and find some of them have been lacking or insufficient," Costello said.

Pruitt said he recently decided to stop flying first-class despite the EPA previously saying it was a necessary measure to protect him from the public. And he justified his 24-hour security team by reciting some of the personal threats he has received. He said the EPA inspector general's office has documented the threats and deemed them "unprecedented."

Pruitt addressed questions about his $50-per-night lease for the room in Washington from an energy lobbyist's wife, saying the arrangement had received ethics approval and noting that the EPA inspector general's office had found it to be roughly market rate.

Some 170 Democratic lawmakers have called for Pruitt's resignation, and five congressional Republicans members have joined the call in recent days.

(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Will Dunham)