WASHINGTON: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who pleased President Donald Trump with his aggressive efforts to roll back environmental regulations, resigned on Thursday under heavy fire for a series of ethics controversies.
Pruitt had been under scrutiny for months for his first-class travel at taxpayer expense, lavish spending on security, the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office, and accusations he used his position to receive favors such as a discounted rental on a high-end condo from an energy lobbyist's wife.
Many Democratic lawmakers and even some fellow Republicans had called for Pruitt's resignation.
"The unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us," Pruitt said in his resignation letter.
Trump announced the resignation on Twitter and said EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former mining industry lobbyist, will become the regulatory agency's acting chief on Monday. Wheeler is widely expected to take up Pruitt's efforts to roll back and streamline regulation.
"Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this," Trump wrote.
Trump told reporters later that Pruitt had approached him and offered to resign.
Democrats and environmental advocacy groups cheered the departure of Pruitt, a close ally of the fossil fuel industry who has often questioned mainstream climate change science.
"Scott Pruitt's reign of venality is finally over. He made swamp creatures blush with his shameless excesses. All tolerated because Trump liked his zealotry. Shame," Democratic U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly said.
The Environmental Working Group, a public health and environment watchdog, called Pruitt "unquestionably the worst head of the agency in its 48-year history." Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, from Pruitt's home state of Oklahoma, praised Pruitt's efforts to cut red tape for industry.
"Scott Pruitt did great work to reduce the regulatory burdens facing our nation while leading the Environmental Protection Agency," Inhofe said in a statement.
"POLICY WILL REMAIN" Environmental advocates as well as fans of deregulation said Wheeler was likely to continue Pruitt's efforts to reduce environmental protections.
A former lobbyist for Murray Energy, the nation's largest underground coal mining company, Wheeler also worked for Inhofe on efforts to combat climate legislation.
Wheeler "has the potential to be just as destructive," said Michael Mikulka, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704.
"We urge him to immediately commit to undoing the massive damage to EPA's work done under Pruitt's leadership." Matt Dempsey, an energy lobbyist at consultancy FTI, said Wheeler will be less controversial than Pruitt.
"He will be less political and more straightforward in his approach to the job, which is better for the Trump administration agenda in the long run. The politics will pass but the policy will remain," he said.
Some of the ethics accusations against Pruitt involved jobs for his wife. Emails obtained by the Sierra Club environmental group showed Pruitt had an aide contact the chief executive of a fast-food chain about his wife becoming a franchise owner.
The Washington Post reported Pruitt had aides try to get her a job at the Republican Attorneys General Association with a salary topping $200,000 per year.
During congressional testimony in April, Pruitt was unapologetic for the controversies, often blaming his staff for any agency missteps. Lawmakers posed tough questions on a range of issues also including raises for top aides and reports of retaliation against EPA whistleblowers. Democrats accused him of endless misconduct.
Pruitt was also known for questioning the human role in global climate change. As Oklahoma's former attorney general, he waged a legal fight against environmental rules implemented by the agency he eventually would head.
SLASHING REGULATIONS From a policy perspective, Pruitt was one of Trump's most effective Cabinet members. Trump has praised Pruitt for slashing regulations on the energy and manufacturing industries, including his move to repeal Democratic former President Barack Obama's signature program to cut carbon emissions from power plants, known as the Clean Power Plan.
Pruitt also was instrumental last year in lobbying Trump to withdraw the United States from the global 2015 Paris climate accord to combat global warming.
Trump's inner circle this year became frustrated by the torrent of news reports about Pruitt's controversies.
Pruitt also rankled some Republican lawmakers, including in Midwest corn states, with his efforts to overhaul a U.S. policy requiring biofuels like corn-based ethanol in gasoline. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, for example, called Pruitt "about as swampy as you can get." Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, also of Iowa, said Trump "made the right decision." The EPA's inspector general was investigating Pruitt's frequent use of first-class flights, which the agency has said were needed for his safety after threats from the public. The EPA also confirmed that Pruitt's security detail joined him on first-class flights, contributing to the high costs of his travel.
Travel records showed the U.S. government spent $17,000 in taxpayer money on a December trip to Morocco to promote U.S.
exports of liquefied natural gas, which is not part of the EPA's jurisdiction. The Washington Post reported that a longtime Pruitt friend and lobbyist helped arrange the trip and later registered as a foreign agent representing Morocco.
Pruitt said his $50-per-night condo lease from an energy lobbyist's wife received ethics approval from the agency, though the EPA's inspector general's office said its review was based on incomplete information.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded the EPA violated two laws by installing the $43,000 phone booth for his office without telling lawmakers first. Pruitt said his staff never told him the cost.