EPA to investigate Scott Pruitt’s frequent trips to Oklahoma at taxpayer expense

EPA administrator spent 43 days in his home state over three-month period.

The EPA's office of inspector general plans to look into Administrator Scott Pruitt's dozens of trips to his home state of Oklahoma. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
The EPA's office of inspector general plans to look into Administrator Scott Pruitt's dozens of trips to his home state of Oklahoma. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The Environmental Protection Agency’s office of inspector general plans to look into whether Administrator Scott Pruitt adhered to agency policies when he traveled to Oklahoma dozens of times during his first six months as administrator.

Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter Monday to the EPA inspector general requesting a review of Pruitt’s travels to his home state at taxpayers’ expense. In a memo issued Monday, the inspector general’s office also said the inquiry was initiated in response to a complaint it received on its hotline.

The IG’s office will look into the frequency, cost, and extent of Pruitt’s travel to Oklahoma through July 31. It will seek to determine whether the EPA’s travel policies and procedures were followed by Pruitt and other agency staff as part of those trips. Finally, the office will look at whether the agency’s policies and procedures are sufficiently designed to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse as they relate to Pruitt’s travel, including his trips to Oklahoma.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Ranking Member Diana DeGette (D-CO), and House Subcommittee on Environment Ranking Member Paul Tonko (D-NY) said in their letter that Americans deserve an EPA administrator who devotes agency resources to protecting human health and the environment, not one who “is inappropriately making taxpayers foot the bill for his trips to Oklahoma.”

Pruitt reportedly traveled to Oklahoma 43 days, or nearly half of all days during March, April, and May 2017, at a cost of more than $15,000. Records indicate Pruitt, who served as the state’s attorney general until getting confirmed as EPA administrator in February, attended “informational meetings” during his trips to Oklahoma. But those same records also indicate that his trips to the state lasted three to five days, with only one such meeting listed during each of those multi-day trips away from Washington.

In their letter, the lawmakers asked the inspector general to determine whether the EPA’s policies and procedures are sufficiently designed to prevent fraud and waste. According to a news report, the EPA paid $1,980 for one of Pruitt’s commercial airline tickets to Oklahoma.

The Democratic committee leaders wrote that they appreciated previous work conducted by the EPA’s inspector general in 2015 that found weaknesses in EPA’s management controls for travel. The lawmakers emphasized in their letter that the House Energy and Commerce Committee “has a longstanding interest in ensuring effective agency controls regarding leadership and staff travel and reducing the risk of fraud, waste, and abuse.”

Many political observers speculate that the trips to Oklahoma are helping him lay the groundwork for a Senate campaign.

“If Pruitt is using taxpayer money to spend a large portion of his time in Oklahoma, then you’d think you’d see the people’s interests there better represented,” Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce said in a statement Monday. “But instead of taking action to fight the coal ash and water pollution that many Oklahomans are plagued by, Pruitt seems to be using these visits to launch his political career instead.”

Pruitt’s predecessor at EPA, Gina McCarthy, also traveled frequently to her home in Boston, where her husband lived; however, McCarthy paid for those trips herself while taxpayers paid for Pruitt’s trips to Oklahoma, according to a New York Times report last month.

“Pruitt’s frequent absence from his job would make even the worst high school truant ashamed,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement Monday. “Protecting Americans from pollution is a 24/7 job, but clearly you don’t have to be in the office when your agenda is to abolish decades of safeguards meant to keep our air and water clean.”

The inspector general’s office said it plans to work with the EPA’s Cincinnati Finance Center and the office of the chief financial officer to obtain needed information. The office expects to begin its inquiry in late August. Throughout the inquiry, the IG said it will provide regular updates to the agency’s chief financial officer on its findings through a monthly meeting or by email, phone, or video conference.