The watchdog office charged with investigating EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s potentially improper use of taxpayer funds for travel won’t expand its ongoing probe beyond travel conducted in 2017, citing constraints on its staffing, budget, and time.
Therefore, while a trip that cost taxpayers more than $7,000 in June of 2017 would qualify as part of the office’s ongoing investigation into Pruitt’s taxpayer-funded travel, a recent first-class flight from D.C. to Boston would not.
According to a letter obtained by Politico, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General wrote to House Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) to inform him that while he would look into all of Pruitt’s travel for 2017, he could not expand the probe to cover travel in the future. Pallone initially asked the EPA to look into Pruitt’s travel in July, citing reports that Pruitt had spent nearly half of his first three months as administrator using taxpayer funds to travel to and from his home state of Oklahoma.
Since then, numerous outlets have reported that Pruitt’s unorthodox travel habits don’t just include trips to Oklahoma, but that the administrator tends to fly first class or business class when he travels for official government business — a significant departure from his predecessors.
This summer, Pruitt flew on a military jet from Cincinnati to New York, which cost $36,068.50, according to the Washington Post. Pruitt then boarded a transatlantic flight to Rome, a round-trip business class ticket that cost $7,003.52. In total, taxpayer-funded travel for Pruitt and his aides during a short stretch of early June cost at least $90,000.
Pruitt has continued his habit of flying first or business class into 2018, flying from Washington, D.C. to Boston in first class earlier this week. In response to criticism about potential waste of taxpayer dollars — as well as any potential violation of federal regulations, which require that government employees fly coach except under extraordinary circumstances — the EPA told reporters that Pruitt has a “blanket waiver” that allows him to fly first class for all his trips.
It is unclear who signed off on the waiver, which is reportedly related to security concerns surrounding threats made to Pruitt. Pruitt is the first EPA administrator to employ an around-the-clock security detail, which cost some $832.735.40 during his first quarter as administrator.
In January, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General announced that it would be expanding its probe into Pruitt’s travel habits to include all trips through the end of 2017. The office also announced that it would open an investigation into spending surrounding Pruitt’s extensive security detail. The inspector general is also investigating reports that Pruitt spent $25,000 on a soundproof “privacy booth” for his office.
While the inspector general’s office will not expand its travel probe past 2017, Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to the office Wednesday outlining their expectation that the ongoing investigation will include a probe into Pruitt’s “blanket waiver” for first class travel.
“It is unclear how, in each of these instances, more costly domestic travel, or where one is seated on an aircraft, provides additional security as compared to more economical options,” Reps. Pallone, Diana DeGette (D-CO), and Paul Tonko (D-NY) wrote in the letter.
According to Politico, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General requested additional funding for the 2019 fiscal year, but instead saw its budget cut under the Trump administration’s proposed budget, from a little more than $4 million in 2018 to $3.7 million.