Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s scandal-plagued first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, spent nearly $124,000 on “excessive” travel costs during a 10-month period, according to an internal audit released Thursday.
Pruitt took 40 trips, at a cost to taxpayers of $985,037, for himself, his staff and an unusually large security team between March 1 and Dec. 31, 2017, the audit found. Pruitt resigned under fire last July.
Pruitt took 16 trips to Tulsa, Okla., where he has a home, at a cost of $114,487. Many of his trips home were over weekends.
The EPA inspector general’s office recommended the EPA consider recovering the $123,942 from Pruitt and others. It said the figure represented the difference between coach fares and the higher-priced business class and first-class tickets that Pruitt and his entourage purchased instead.
The EPA rejected the recommendation, saying in a statement that Pruitt’s travel costs were authorized, and attempts to claw back the money were “inappropriate.” The agency retroactively approved Pruitt’s travel spending in some cases.
The spending was “excessive” because it was improperly approved “without sufficient justification” or by someone who did not have authority to approve it, the internal audit found.
“The former Administrator and his accompanying [security] agents incurred more travel costs than necessary or appropriate by flying first/business class,” the 84-page report states.
EPA officials justified Pruitt’s first-class travel at the time, saying it was necessary to prevent “lashing out from passengers” in coach class who were angry at the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations.
“We believe that the continued use of coach seats for the Administrator would endanger his life,” the head of Pruitt’s security detail wrote in a 2017 memo.
Investigators also found that Pruitt and his staff spent more on hotels than permitted, exceeding the government’s maximum allowed rate by 150%.
Democrats urged the current EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, to take a harder line on abusive spending and called on him to try to recoup the $124,000.
Wheeler should “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,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) wrote that the EPA should “send Pruitt’s tab” to groups that promoted fossil fuels and other policies that critics say lead to global warming. “Tag it ‘For Services Rendered,’ ” he tweeted.
Pruitt’s high-priced travels and weekend visits to Oklahoma drew sharp criticism at the time. So did other cases of extravagant spending by the former Republican lobbyist, several of which led to federal investigations.
They included his deal with the wife of a top energy lobbyist for deeply discounted housing in Washington, huge raises he gave friends against the instructions of the White House, and his decision to spend $43,000 to have a soundproof phone booth installed in his EPA office.
The installation of the phone booth violated federal spending laws, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Last year, another investigation by the EPA’s internal watchdog found that Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail, which cost nearly $3.5 million during his first year in office, was also unjustified.