WASHINGTON – Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt on Tuesday attributed his habit of taking taxpayer-funded, first-class flights to his personal security detail and chief of staff, saying he plays no role in his travel arrangements.
"I'm not involved in any of those decisions," Pruitt told the New Hampshire Union Leader during a visit to the state. "Those are all made by the [security] detail, the security assessment in addition to the chief of staff."
Pruitt told the paper that the decision to routinely fly business- and first-class around the country and even internationally stemmed from unspecified threats early in his tenure at the EPA.
"We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment," said Pruitt, who acknowledged he had just flown first-class from Washington to Boston to reach New Hampshire. "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 comments came after the Washington Post reported details about dozens of first-class flights Pruitt had taken through last summer, as well as his penchant for staying at luxury hotels.
For instance, taxpayers paid at least $90,000 for Pruitt and a group of aides to travel during a brief stretch last June, on trips that included first-class flights for television interviews in New York and a visit with officials in Rome, where he toured the Vatican. That figure does not account for the costs of Pruitt's round-the-clock security detail, which have not been disclosed.
Pruitt spent $4,443 for separate round-trips to Birmingham and Atlanta for visits that included a power plant and farm tour. On at least four occasions, he has spent between $2,000 and $2,600 on first-class airfare to official meetings or tours near Tulsa, where he lives. Frequently, he stayed in Tulsa for the weekend, according to travel records released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Pruitt's other first-class trips include a $4,680.04 itinerary to Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, and Little Rock, as well as a $10,830 multicity ticket, which included stops in Colorado, Iowa, North Dakota, and Texas. He also has taken charter or military aircraft on several occasions. The EPA has said ethics officials approved each of the expenditures.
Such travel decisions, coupled with the EPA's tendency not to publicize Pruitt's out-of-town trips, have prompted criticism from Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups, who have questioned not only how much the agency leader's travel is costing taxpayers, but also how much some of Pruitt's trips have to do with the EPA's mission.
Federal regulations require government employees to "exercise the same care in incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on personal business . . . and therefore, should consider the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs." Agencies are allowed to authorize first-class travel in rare instances, such as a flight of 14 hours or more, a medical disability, or when "exceptional security circumstances" mean "use of coach class accommodations would endanger your life or government property."
The agency has not disclosed the nature of any threats against Pruitt or why traveling in a first-class cabin is considered safer than sitting in a coach seat. But the EPA's assistant inspector general for investigations told the Washington Post last year that Pruitt has gotten a higher number of threats than his recent predecessors.
Meanwhile, the inspector general's office is conducting probes of Pruitt's travel last year and the expansion of his security detail, which requires several times the resources of his predecessors.
While in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Pruitt also met with Gov. Chris Sununu and toured the Central Paper company in Manchester.