EPA Chief's Pricey Trips Include Home State Oklahoma Charter

(Bloomberg) -- Scott Pruitt spent $107,441 on airplane flights during his first six months leading the Environmental Protection Agency, including $14,434 to travel with his staff on a charter within his home state of Oklahoma last July, according to newly released documents.

The disclosures come amid intensifying scrutiny of Pruitt’s travel, which is already being probed by the agency’s internal watchdog, and questions about the administrator’s reliance on first class flights to whisk him to meetings from Milan to Minneapolis.

The travel documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and a subsequent lawsuit by the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog and research group founded by a former EPA enforcement official who served under former President Bill Clinton and, briefly, George W. Bush.

According to the travel vouchers, the EPA spent $14,434 in chartered, non-commercial flights for Pruitt and at least six staff members on July 27 last year between cities in Oklahoma -- specifically from Tulsa to Guymon and then from Guymon to Oklahoma City. To justify the charter flights, the EPA cited the remote location, the administrator’s schedule, the lack of available commercial aircraft and time constraints that prevented ground travel, with one leg of the trip estimated to take five hours by car.

Before taking the helm of the EPA last February, Pruitt was attorney general of Oklahoma.

Pruitt’s trip to Guymon was for a meeting with landowners on an Obama-era water pollution rule the EPA is rewriting -- one of several sessions around the country in which the administrator discussed the issue with ranchers, farmers and other stakeholders who have complained the 2015 regulation unfairly asserted the federal government’s jurisdiction over ephemeral streams and drainage ditches. 

In moving to rewrite the "Waters of the United States" rule, Pruitt has said the EPA is returning power to the states and providing "regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses." The EPA is committed to an evaluation process that "is thoughtful, transparent and collaborative with other agencies and the public," Pruitt said last June.

That transparent collaboration included consultation with Western lawmakers and farm and ranching groups. For instance, the EPA spent $10,830 in airfare for Pruitt from Aug. 2 to Aug. 10 last year for a series of meetings on a range of issues, including a closed-door roundtable on the water rule in North Dakota and another session on the regulation in Iowa. One Pruitt flight in North Dakota was on a state plane, offered by the governor because of a tight schedule.

Pruitt has routinely sat in first- and business-class seats during his commercial flights, a practice EPA officials have defended as essential to ensure his protection amid vulgar, aggressive encounters and unprecedented threats.

Henry Barnet, the director of EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, said on Thursday that the intimate first-class quarters help security agents minimize risks, allowing them to push and pull Pruitt away from any materializing threats.

EPA representatives did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment on the newly released documents.

American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group, called on the Office of Special Counsel to investigate whether Pruitt’s first-class trips are misusing taxpayer funds.

"Scott Pruitt is free to spend his own money to avoid sitting next to the ‘deplorables’ in coach, but if he really considers talking with ordinary Americans to be a security threat, he probably shouldn’t be in public service," said Austin Evers, the group’s executive director.

Eric Schaeffer, the former EPA enforcement official who heads the Environmental Integrity Project, questioned the justification for flights ferrying Pruitt to what he said were 17 closed-door meetings with farm groups and other industries on the "Waters of the U.S." rule.

"You’re flying first class to a closed-door meeting for invited industry representatives and local politicians only," Schaeffer said. "That’s government business? Really?"

Among the newly disclosed travel is a trip from Washington to Tulsa, on Thursday, June 22 last year, with a return flight to Washington on Monday, June 26, designed to accommodate a tour of a Sapulpa, Oklahoma, facility owned by the glass and metal packaging manufacturer Ardagh Group SA.

According to the EPA’s travel voucher for the trip, the manufacturer was "having an issue in Indiana that they want to talk to the administrator about." The documents do not specifically detail what that issue was or what Pruitt discussed with Ardagh officials during his visit. And EPA officials did not respond to questions about the encounter.

But the EPA a year earlier, under President Barack Obama, had sought information from the company to ensure that furnace upgrades at its plant in Indiana complied with the Clean Air Act. 

Ardagh representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

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