EPA watchdog: Agency should recoup $124,000 in ‘excessive’ Pruitt travel costs
EPA’s inspector general on Thursday identified nearly $124,000 in “excessive” travel costs for former Administrator Scott Pruitt during 2017, but the agency said it had no plans to try to recoup the money.
The long-awaited report by the agency’s watchdog pointed to Pruitt’s practice of flying in first class, often with a bodyguard, as the main reason for the excessive costs, and said the travel — which totaled $985,000 over a 10-month period — was often improperly approved. And it recommended EPA consider trying to claw back the excessive portion of that spending.
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“The former Administrator and his accompanying [security] agents incurred more travel costs than necessary or appropriate by flying first/business class,” the report from the 22-month audit by the Office of Inspector General said.
The OIG did not identify who exactly should be responsible for paying back the $123,942, and multiple agency officials are involved in approving travel costs. Potentially, Pruitt, who departed EPA last July, could himself be on the hook for the difference between his own first class seats and a coach ticket. (Pruitt’s attorney did not immediately return a request for comment on Thursday.)
The agency said Pruitt’s first-class expenses were justified because other travelers were confronting Pruitt in airports during his trips. “Scott Pruitt, you’re f—ing up the environment,” was the sort of shouted refrain hurled at Pruitt in public that alarmed his security detail, an agency official said last year.
However, the OIG says EPA “lacked sufficient justification to support endangerment of the former Administrator’s life — the agency’s asserted basis for the security exception,” the report said.
EPA pushed back on the OIG report and argued that no one is on the hook for the expenses.
All of Pruitt’s 2017 travel was “valid” and was properly approved, “making cost recovery inappropriate,” EPA said in a statement. The agency also pointed to new control measures, including a directive requiring two of three high-ranking officials at EPA personally approve any expenses over $5,000 related to the administrator.
That may help prevent future “waste, fraud and abuse,” the OIG said, but that it does not absolve EPA of recouping the $124,000 in costs that auditors say were unsupported.
John Trefry, the OIG’s director of forensic audits, said the office “disagrees” with EPA that the travel costs do not need to be paid back by one or more officials.
“The agency has not provided support for its review of 2017 costs,” he said on a podcast released by the OIG. “We are still working with the EPA to resolve our disagreement about these recommendations,” he added.
His concerns were amplified by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the chairman of House Energy and Commerce Committee, who called for the former administrator to be held responsible.
“Pruitt must reimburse the American taxpayers immediately. It is the least he owes the American people after such a shamelessly wasteful and unethical tenure,” he said in a statement.
Pruitt’s lawyer, Cleta Mitchell, said in a statement the former EPA chief had followed all agency procedures, and the agency declared all costs “were valid and proper,” so no action to recover costs was necessary.
In response to the OIG audit, EPA retroactively approved all first-class and business-class travel related to Pruitt’s trips in 2017 and 2018. The OIG said that helped resolve concerns over approval authority, though Democratic Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) blasted EPA over the retroactive approvals.
“We urge Administrator [Andrew] Wheeler to immediately reverse course on this irresponsible decision, and conduct much needed internal oversight, reform policies at the agency and take every step needed to recover these costs,” they said in a statement.
In answering the watchdog’s findings, EPA also argued that Pruitt was not always accompanied in first class by a Protective Service Detail agent, which it said means the OIG overestimated the expenses that it says are owed back.
The inspector general’s office, however, argued that only undermines EPA’s position. Since Pruitt sometimes flew alone in first class, it “raises doubt as to whether it was truly necessary for the [security] agents to fly in close proximity to the former Administrator and thus whether any first/business-class airfares were justified for the former Administrator or PSD agents,” the report said.
Aside from Pruitt’s first-class expenses, the OIG also criticized EPA for failing to determine whether Pruitt’s frequent visits home to Oklahoma were costing the government extra.
Multiple trips that included stops in Pruitt’s hometown of Tulsa were not along the most direct route for EPA’s official business, the OIG found. But EPA’s justifications for those trips “did not contain the required detail and support” for its conclusions that it was often cost-effective to fly Pruitt through Tulsa.
“Without proper cost comparisons and documentation, we were unable to determine whether additional costs were incurred for those stops in Tulsa the former Administrator made for personal convenience,” the report said.
Meanwhile, the OIG cleared EPA on costs related to several private flights, as well as a pricey military jet Pruitt used to make a connecting flight to an official trip to Italy in 2017.
“We found that the former Administrator’s use of military/chartered flights was properly documented and approved in accordance with the FTR and EPA travel policy,” the report concluded.