EPA chief Scott Pruitt tells US lawmakers ethics charges are distractions, lies

WASHINGTON, April 26 (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 said. "And a lie doesn't become true just because it appears in the front page of the newspaper."

Pruitt wants 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.

The hearings - ostensibly to discuss the EPA budget - pose a critical test for Pruitt as the White House becomes increasingly frustrated by news reports on issues ranging from his heavy spending on first-class air travel and security, to his rental of a room in a high-end Washington condo linked to an energy industry lobbyist.

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"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.

Lawmakers scolded Pruitt for the alleged missteps.

Democratic Representative Paul Tonko, for example, ripped Pruitt for his "seemingly endless misconduct."

Tonko cited Pruitt's "wasteful spending on luxury travel, personal security and, yes, office upgrades, to say nothing of his well-documented sweetheart rental from a lobbyist with business before EPA." Tonko also cited reports of Pruitt's retaliation against EPA employees who have questioned his abuses and expenditures.

"At the heart of all these issues is an apparent pattern of an administrator refusing accountability and putting personal and special interests ahead of the American people," Tonko said.

The EPA has defended Pruitt's spending on travel and security, saying it has been crucial to protecting him from public threats and ensuring he can conduct confidential work, and have also pointed out that Pruitt's lease for the room in Washington was around market rate.

Although Trump has expressed support for Pruitt for his work rolling back environmental regulations that industry considered overly burdensome, White House sources have told Reuters officials are becoming worried about the flow of charges against him.

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 U.S. House of Representatives oversight committee.

Recent findings by the GAO, which said the EPA violated the law by installing a $43,000 secure soundproof booth in Pruitt's office without notifying lawmakers first, are of particular concern, the White House sources said.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House was evaluating the allegations against Pruitt. "We expect the EPA administrator to answer for them," she said.

Democratic lawmakers who oppose Pruitt's regulatory rollbacks have seized on his scandals, with 170 of them calling for his resignation. In recent days, five Republican Congress members have joined their ranks in calling for his ouster. (Reporting By Valerie Volcovici and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Will Dunham)