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Analysis

Ethics experts explain how to protect taxpayers from Pruitt-like scandals

The report advises EPA recover nearly $124,000 in "excessive" funds spent mostly on first class travel.

A flag with the EPA logo flies in front of the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. (Photo credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A flag with the EPA logo flies in front of the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. (Photo credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Internal watchdogs opened more than a dozen investigations into a range of scandals surrounding the former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department last year. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke both resigned as their ethics, management, and travel scandals mounted.

In doing so, they have largely been able to avoid the accusations and potential consequences, leading experts and politicians alike to demand greater accountability.

Several of the probes into these two former Trump officials have been closed or remain inconclusive due to lack of cooperation from former or current officials. But agency watchdogs are still investigating alleged misconduct. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report Thursday on Pruitt’s travel expenses that found Pruitt racked up nearly $124,000 in “excessive” travel costs in 2017 — largely due to his penchant for first class travel, which often took place “without sufficient justification and proper approval.”

Among its more than a dozen recommendations, the OIG says the EPA should recover these funds from the “responsible official or officials.” Ten of the 14 recommendations in the report remain unresolved, however, and in its response, the EPA asserted that since the travel was “valid” it does not have any plans to try and recoup the money.

The 84-page report is detailed and pointed, but the EPA’s response left many critics unsatisfied.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who was the first member of Congress to formally call for Pruitt’s resignation, said current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is “sweeping [Pruitt’s] wrongdoing under the rug.”

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“Andrew Wheeler is allowing him to cheat taxpayers out of thousands of dollars by proclaiming his intention not to follow up on the findings of [the] report,” Beyer said in a statement. “Pruitt should not be allowed to evade the consequences of his actions just because he was dismissed before his offenses were fully uncovered.”

The same can be said of Zinke, who remains largely unscathed by the numerous investigations that dogged him in the Trump administration. After resigning, he failed to cooperate with investigators by not turning in documents regarding his use of a private plane linked to oil executives, along with other charter flights that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. The inspector general’s report was therefore inconclusive.

So, this all begs the question: How can government officials be held accountable for misuse of taxpayer money when it seems by resigning they largely escape the consequences?

Government ethics watchdogs have long criticized this lack of accountability. “Once a government official resigns from government service, an IG [Inspector General] often closes investigations into wrongful behavior because the IG can no longer compel the person’s testimony,” Rebecca Jones, policy counsel at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), told ThinkProgress.

“Then, rather than being held accountable for their actions, the former employee often lands in a lucrative private consulting position,” she continued. “This is an accountability loophole that permits flagrant abuse of power. It’s also an unabashed slap in the face to taxpayers left signing the check.”

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Pruitt and Zinke now work as high-paid consultants for industries they regulated just a short time ago — Pruitt for coal and Zinke for mining.

The EPA’s latest report seeks to address a portion of this accountability gap by laying out steps for how the misuse of taxpayer funds for first class travel and expensive hotels can be avoided in the future.

In addition to urging the EPA to recoup the $123,942 in excessive travel costs, the OIG calls for the agency to adopt stricter policies and oversight procedures. This includes implementing controls to ensure the official approving first class or business travel has the authority to do so, that this type of travel be “properly justified and documented prior to approval,” and have controls to ensure “adequate cost comparisons” are made before approving a travel route that’s not the most direct or standard route. Nearly half of Pruitt’s domestic flights were routed via his hometown in Oklahoma, for instance.

“I think this makes sense,” Tom Pelton, communications director for the Environmental Integrity Project, told ThinkProgress. “More careful oversight of the spending of cabinet members by the federal government should crack down on this kind of waste and abuse of taxpayer funds.”

Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, agreed. “You are correct that sometimes with administrative matters, the consequences for certain violations may not materialize if they are left up to agency discretion; and sometimes the absence of an official moots an investigation,” she said. “But the fact of this report and the recommendation is significant.”

Annual OIG reports are submitted to Congress, Marsco explained, and the OIG keeps logs of recommendations that were not implemented. “These recommendations can and should be used as a tool for congressional oversight of agency practice with regard to travel, if the agency fails to implement the recommendations on its own,” Marsco said.

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Ultimately, preventing future scandals comes down to congressional oversight, according to POGO’s Jones. “I think the solution lies as much in deterring this kind of blatant disregard for ethics as it does in having the ability to hold bad actors accountable after the fact,” she said.

Congress needs to ensure inspectors general and the Office of Special Counsel have adequate funding, said Jones. In February 2018, the EPA OIG said it didn’t have enough funding to investigate all of Pruitt’s scandals, and so it had to limit its travel probe to 2017 — which is why the report out this week does not examine any travel by Pruitt in 2018.

Congressional committees are able to wield greater power than inspectors general to compel information. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), for instance, has said he’ll use his subpoena power as Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee to hold Zinke to account; with a majority vote, the committee can issue a subpoena for Zinke to testify.

Congress should also introduce reforms to support inspectors general to be able to do the same, Jones said. This includes giving them testimonial subpoena authority (which is separate from issuing a subpoena for documents) so they can call upon former officials to testify even if they’ve resigned. Other reforms should focus on increasing transparency and strengthening the independence of these internal watchdog offices.

At the end of the day, however, “compliance with ethics rules is so dependent on the ethical culture of the agency,” said Marsco. “If we see the most senior officials skirting ethics rules, it’s more likely that less senior employees will feel empowered to do the same.”

There’s no lack of ethics controversies in the Trump administration. Beyond Zinke and Pruitt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao have also been criticized over taxpayer-funded travel expenses. Meanwhile, the former heads of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency all resigned amid expenses controversies. And the current officials leading the EPA and Interior, along with other government agencies, are face questions over conflicts of interest.

“In the absence of ethical leadership, strong prevention mechanisms are necessary,” she said, noting that she felt the OIG’s recommendations to the EPA were “good ones.”

For many politicians, watchdogs, and environmental groups, though, a satisfying first step would be for Pruitt to pay back his travel costs.

“There needs to be accountability for such blatant abuses of the public trust. Mr. Pruitt should repay the taxpayer money that he wasted on his lavish travel expenses,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing the EPA’s budget, said in a statement. He added that “the Trump EPA needs to heed the recommendations of the OIG” to prevent such future abuses.

It’s not unprecedented for officials to reimburse expenses. According to an October 2018 Interior OIG report, for instance, which found that Zinke violated department policy by allowing his wife and others ride with him in department vehicles, the couple repaid the costs associated with the travel. And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reportedly reimbursed taxpayers for his private travel to watch an eclipse with his wife.

“By resigning, [Pruitt] should not now be able to escape repaying what he owes taxpayers for these improper expenses,” Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said in an email to ThinkProgress.

But many doubt Pruitt will do this. And as a spokesperson from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) told ThinkProgress, “It’s not about holding the officials accountable as much as holding the government accountable. By removing wrongdoers from the government, the government becomes more accountable to taxpayers.”