EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has dominated some of the news headlines over the past week for something other than his stance on environmental regulations, his travel habits. Last week, the Washington Post released a story detailing the travel arrangements of Scott Pruitt over his first year in the Trump Administration. Pruitt’s travel as Administrator of the EPA differs from his two immediate predecessors in that he has made a habit of flying first-class or business class and does not provide advance notice of his exact itinerary.
The previous two EPA Administrators, Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy, both traveled overseas to attend foreign summits and other events. However, both Jackson and McCarthy flew coach. Additionally, the EPA typically provided an announcement that discussed the travel and the purpose of the trips in advance.
In fairness to Pruitt, this shift to first-class travel did not begin in earnest until June 2017. Henry Barnet, director of the EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement noted that there were incidents where Pruitt was being approached, people were using vulgar language towards Pruitt and becoming aggressive and that this precipitated the request from the special agent in charge of protecting Pruitt that he be placed in business class or first-class to avoid such encounters. Barnet argues that the closer quarters in these travel classes allow the agents to respond quicker to any threats.
Before discussing the actual costs incurred in the travel, it is important to note that there are regulations that dictate travel by government officials. 41 C.F.R. § 301-10.123 (2017) provides guidance on when something other than coach airline travel is allowed. According to the regulation, “[g]overnment travelers are required 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.” The regulation goes on to note that the agency can authorize first class travel if there is no coach accommodation reasonably available, use of other than coach is necessary to accommodate a medical disability or other special need, or if exceptional security circumstances require it. When first questioned about Pruitt’s air travel, the EPA told reporters that Pruitt had a blanket waiver. However, Note 2 to the regulation states that a blanket authorization is prohibited. Later the same day, the EPA backed away from the earlier statement and claimed that it submits the same waiver for each trip.
On Monday June 5, Pruitt flew round-trip from Washington, D.C. to New York in first-class for an overnight trip that included two brief television appearances touting the decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord at a cost of $1641.43. On Wednesday June 7, Pruitt first flew with President Trump on Air Force One for an infrastructure event in Cincinnati and then flew on a military jet to New York in order to catch a flight to Rome. The cost of the military jet was $36,068.50. The transatlantic flight to Rome was part of a round-trip ticket purchased for $7003.52. In Rome, Pruitt went on a tour of the Vatican, met with papal officials, businessmen, and legal experts and then proceeded to a meeting of environmental ministers in Bologna. He left the meeting in Bologna a day early to return to Washington to attend the infamous cabinet meeting where Trump was praised by his cabinet. The cost of Pruitt’s travel in early June totaled at least $90,000, according to the receipts obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project through a FOIA request. Additionally, Pruitt’s use of charter flights in his home state of Oklahoma have also come under scrutiny. The EPA spent $14,434 on non-commercial flights for Pruitt and six staff members on July 27 between the cities of Guymon and Oklahoma City. The EPA also spent $10,830 in airfare from August 2 to August 10 for meetings in Iowa and North Dakota.
In an interview with WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire, Scott Pruitt has said that he has had interactions with travelers that have “not been the best.” He also claimed that the first-class arrangements are not up to him. He said that security officials “place me on the plane where they think is best from a safety perspective.” EPA spokesperson, Liz Bowman, has said that all of Pruitt’s travel expenses have been approved by federal ethics officials. Additionally, Bowman noted that the agency does not release his schedule in advance due to security concerns and to prevent it from becoming a distraction.
This week, Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce wrote a letter to Pruitt requesting information about the waivers he has received to travel first-class. The letter noted that the Agency has had differing explanations about the waiver. The letter questioned the rationale that safety required first-class travel given that the EPA Office of the Inspector General that no security threats have been related to air travel and that many of the unpleasant encounters took place in airports rather than on the plane itself. The letter requests a list of all instances to date where there has been domestic air travel in first or business-class and the cost; the extent to which the applicable travel regulations were followed; whether there has been any analysis to indicate that enhanced security is achieved through premium air travel; which EPA appointees and staff were involved in requesting, drafting, or reviewing any waivers issued for premium travel; for every instance of premium travel, how many other premium tickets were purchased for aides, staff, or security; whether any other current EPA appointees have received waivers for premium travel; and whether the premium travel was authorized or otherwise approved by the White House. The letter requests the information by March 6, 2018.
Dennis, Brady and Juliet Eilperin, EPA chief has unusual waiver to fly in first or business class, Washington Post, February 14, 2018.
Dlouhy, Jennifer A., Pruitt’s pricey travel included charter flights in home state, Daily Environment Report, February 20, 2018.
Dlouhy, Jennifer A., EPA Chief’s high-flying travel prompted by ‘vulgar’ encounters, Daily Environment Report, February 16, 2018.