(Bloomberg) -- Scott Pruitt’s willingness to part with taxpayer money as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency has drawn rebukes from ethics watchdogs and lawmakers in both parties.
Reports of Pruitt’s liberal spending on travel, security and pay raises for staff “do raise concerns about whether the administrator is using his public office for personal gain in violation of ethics rules,” David Apol, the acting head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, wrote in an April 6 letter to the EPA.
Two Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed their worry on the Sunday talk shows.
“This doesn’t look good,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“The appearance of impropriety matters,” Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
President Donald Trump has stood by Pruitt, telling him that the White House has “got your back.”
As pressure mounts on Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who was once considered a possible replacement for the embattled U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, here’s a cheat sheet of his actions that have drawn double-takes.
Shortly after Pruitt was sworn in on Feb. 17, 2017, his aides requested round-the-clock protection for him, the Washington Post reported. The rotation required roughly 18 security personnel, triple the number that protected previous EPA administrators. Filling the request meant reassigning some personnel from investigating environmental crimes. The full-time security has cost the agency nearly $3 million, the Associated Press reported.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told the EPA’s inspector general he had evidence that Pruitt had full-time protection even on personal trips, including to Disneyland, the Rose Bowl and his home in Oklahoma.
Pruitt, who has drawn fury from environmentalists for his efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations governing climate change, has told Bloomberg that the added protection was necessary because of “unprecedented” threats against him. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox has said the agency submits a security-related waiver for each trip Pruitt takes and conducts an internal-threat assessment every 90 days.
The EPA signed a $24,570 contract to build a soundproof “privacy booth” in Pruitt’s office so he could communicate securely, the Post reported. No previous EPA administrator had such a facility, known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, though the agency has operated a SCIF for classified communications in a separate space. Critics soon dubbed Pruitt’s booth the “Cone of Silence” -- in a reference to a device used on the 1960s satirical television show “Get Smart.” After accounting for office modifications necessary to accommodate the new booth, the Post placed the total cost at $43,000.
The EPA’s inspector general, Arthur A. Elkins Jr., said in December that he would examine the contract but cautioned, “As you know, we have numerous other pending matters and are not sure when we can begin this engagement.”
Traveling in Style
Pruitt spent more than $105,000 on first-class flights in his first year on the job, Politico reported, citing records the EPA provided to the House Oversight Committee.
That included a $1,600 trip from Washington, D.C., to New York and a round-trip ticket to Italy that cost $7,000. A Pruitt trip to Morocco to promote natural gas exports cost $16,217, Politico said. It drew criticism from Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat, who said the trip consisted of one full working day and “two days each with one, one-hour meeting.”
Pruitt cited security concerns for using first-class, but EPA’s confidential security assessments showed no evidence of specific, credible threats against Pruitt, the Associated Press reported Tuesday, citing a review by Senate Democrats.
The cost of the first-class travel was in addition to several charter and military flights to U.S. locations Pruitt took last year, at a total cost of more than $58,000, the Post reported. One June 2017 flight took Pruitt and several staff members from a Cincinnati infrastructure rally with President Trump to New York so that Pruitt could make the flight to Italy. It cost more than $36,000, the Post said.
Pruitt and a handful of advisers also took at least two private flights for intrastate travel in Oklahoma and Colorado. Together they cost roughly $20,000. The EPA said those expenses were necessary to keep Pruitt on a tightly planned schedule.
Pruitt’s aides even considered taking a monthly lease on a private jet to accommodate his travel needs, the Post reported. After receiving a bid of $100,000 a month, the idea was abandoned.
Government officials are supposed to strive to use the least-expensive class of travel, though agencies can authorize upgrades for long flights, to accommodate medical disabilities or for “exceptional” security circumstances. The EPA has said that the trips and modes of transport were proper and authorized.
Pruitt sought substantial pay raises for two of his closest aides. After the White House turned down the requests, worth tens of thousands of dollars each, the raises were granted anyway, using a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act that allows the EPA chief to make some hires without White House approval.
After news reports of the raises emerged, they were reversed, and Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, took the blame for having authorized the increases. “Administrator Pruitt had zero knowledge of the amount of the raises, nor the process by which they transpired,” Jackson said.
Pruitt still enjoys the support of key Republican lawmakers including Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “He has done the job we’ve asked in terms of rolling back regulations, returning the EPA to its original mission,” Barrasso said Tuesday. “There have been questions that have been raised, the White House is doing a formal review, and we are waiting for the results of that review.”
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