Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s expensive first class travel isn’t just raising objections from environmentalists and Democratic legislators — Republican House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) also wants answers.
In a letter sent to Pruitt on Wednesday, Gowdy asked for information on all flights that Pruitt took in the last year, including whether an individual waiver was obtained in order to purchase a first or business class ticket.
Gowdy also reminded Pruitt that “blanket waivers” for first class travel are prohibited by government regulations, which require federal employees to travel by coach except in extraordinary circumstances.
A report from the Washington Post revealed that in the span of several weeks in June, Pruitt spent at least $90,000 in taxpayer money to fly first and business class on several trips related to EPA work. When questioned about the practice, the EPA said that Pruitt had a “blanket waiver” for first class travel due to security concerns, but later walked that statement back, clarifying that Pruitt obtains a waiver each time he flies.
In an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Pruitt defended his habit of flying first and business class by blaming the “toxic environment politically,” which has “created some issues” for his security. According to the EPA, Pruitt has been approached “numerous times” when traveling by people critical of his leadership, and once had a passenger shout profanities at him on a flight.
But communities who live with the effects of industrial pollution told ThinkProgress that Pruitt’s excuse for flying in first class speaks to a lack of understanding about the real meaning of a “toxic environment.”
“I think that feeling uncomfortable in coach is something that most parents living in environmental justice communities across this country would take any day over having their children exposed to toxic pollution,” Melissa Nootz, who lived for five years near a designated Superfund site in Anaconda, Montana, and whose daughter tested positive for lead in her bloodstream, told ThinkProgress.
Gowdy is the first Republican to investigate Pruitt’s travel habits, but he is far from the only government official looking into the matter. Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have asked the EPA’s Office of Inspector General to look into Pruitt’s travel, including his first class flights and reports that he spent almost half of his first three months as administrator traveling to his home state of Oklahoma.
In a letter sent earlier this month to Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General said that while it will include all trips from 2017 in its investigation into Pruitt’s travel, it would not be able to expand the probe to include trips from 2018, citing constraints on its staffing, budget, and time. The agency watchdog group, which has a separate stream of funding from the agency writ large, would see its budget cut slightly under the Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget.