IG: Scott Pruitt wasted nearly $124K on premium travel

Scott Pruitt, his aides and security agents wasted nearly $124,000 in federal funds on premium travel when he was Environmental Protection Agency administrator, according to an inspector general report released Thursday.

The 84-page report says the $123,942 figure is out of a total of $985,037 spent on 40 trips between March 1 and December 31, 2017.

The IG says the spending was “excessive” because it was improperly approved “without sufficient justification” or by someone who did not have authority to approve it.

The EPA took issue with the characterization that the spending was “excessive,” and rejected the inspector general’s recommendation that the agency ask Pruitt and others to pay back that amount.

Pruitt took the top EPA job in February 2017, and his early months in office were marked by frequent taxpayer-funded travel to his home state of Oklahoma. That and other ethical scandals would ultimately lead to his resignation in the summer of 2018.

His top security official led an expansion of the office dedicated to protecting the administrator, providing unprecedented 24/7 coverage. His protection cost about double the amount spent the prior year, according to agency figures.

Pruitt has said security professionals determined his level of protection based on the threat to him, and said in a February 2018 interview that current times are a “very toxic environment politically.”

“We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment,” Pruitt told the New Hampshire Union Leader in 2018. “We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat.”

The report released Thursday said six of the 40 trips were canceled, and of the 34 trips that were completed, “16 included travel to, or had stops in, Tulsa, Oklahoma — the location of the former administrator’s personal residence.”

Federal funding for six of those Oklahoma stops was justified by meetings or public appearances, according to the report. In 10 instances, “the former Administrator paid his own airfare to Tulsa for the weekend,” it reads.

Pruitt “frequently departed on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday from Washington, D.C., to Tulsa and 19-P-0155 11 other locations, and returned to Washington on Monday or Tuesday of the following week,” it said.

Pruitt initially began flying in standard coach class, the report says, but shifted to primarily premium seats in May 2017.

In addition, six canceled trips cost the government $106,701, an amount that included “cancellation fees/no-show hotel charges and service fees.”

The report concluded the EPA has improved some processes, such as making sure the officials who approve certain expenses have the authority to do so. But the EPA said it disagreed with 10 other recommendations, including one that would have Pruitt and others reimburse the government for the excessive costs.

The agency said in a memo attached to the report that $61,971 was for Pruitt’s premium travel, and that it believes “all remaining charges attributed to the former administrator are valid.”

In one case, it said expenses were due to Pruitt being called in to work while he was on personal leave, and that federal regulations say it is appropriate for the government to cover those costs. In another instance, it said that security detail paperwork justifying first-class travel was on file.

The agency also said the inspector general’s estimation of security detail travel costs was inaccurate. The IG report said the alternative documentation produced by the agency was determined to be inaccurate in several instances, so its original estimate “will remain unchanged.”