From using taxpayer money for private flights to enjoying an 18-member security detail, Scott Pruitt’s life as President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator has all the trappings of a head of state, not a Washington political appointee.
Since his February swearing-in, Pruitt has faced serious allegations and complaints about wasteful spending, and two new issues came to light this week. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the EPA spent almost $25,000 on a secure phone booth inside his headquarters office, and CBS News reported that Pruitt has — like HHS Secretary Tom Price — been opting to travel by private jet.
The construction of a secure, soundproof communications booth in Pruitt’s office at the EPA’s headquarters building in Washington is a truly mind-boggling expenditure. According to the Washington Post, the EPA signed a $24,570 contract for a company to install a “privacy booth for the administrator.” No previous EPA administrators have requested a similar secure phone booth inside their office, according to the newspaper.
The EPA already has a secure information facility at its headquarters, similar to facilities at other federal departments and agencies, where top officials can go to share information classified as secret.
“While the price tag for Pruitt’s phone booth should outrage every taxpayer, it’s who he’s speaking with and what they’re plotting that should be the most concerning to the American people,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group President, a nonprofit environmental group. “Pruitt is certainly not calling me or my fellow environmentalists to get our thoughts on how he should tackle dirty drinking water, chemical contamination or climate change.”
Cook contends Pruitt is “paranoid because he’s working against the EPA, it’s mission and its career scientists and staff who have dedicated themselves to protecting public health and the environment.”
The EPA’s lavish spending on Pruitt is occurring as the Trump administration seeks to slash federal spending and constrict the federal bureaucracy. The administration’s proposal to cut the agency’s budget by 30 percent — or more than $2 billion — is by far the largest cut of any federal agency.
Pruitt’s travel budget has concerned government watchdogs since his first days as administrator. On one day — June 7 — taxpayers were billed $20,000 to cover private flights that Pruitt took to Cincinnati to meet Trump and then a flight on an Air Force jet to New York’s JFK Airport. Each flight otherwise would have cost about $350 on a commercial airliner.
In addition to boarding the more expensive military aircraft, Pruitt took a private plane from Denver to Durango, Colorado, on August 4 for a meeting that included state officials, CBS News reported.
“When the budget is shrinking for your agency, the expectation is that you’ll travel as economically as possible. Generally, that does not include chartering private jets for your travel,” Eric Schaeffer, former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, who now runs the Environmental Integrity Project, told CBS News.
As the administration pushes to cut the EPA’s budget, it is also seeking to justify giving Pruitt a security detail bigger than many heads of state. The EPA in fact has sought an exception to the administration-wide hiring freeze to beef up Pruitt’s security detail.
During the first three months of Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA, the government spent more than $800,000 on security for him, almost twice the cost of security for each of his two predecessors — Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson.
In its budget request, the EPA was looking to add 10 full-time employees to protect the administrator. Pruitt now has an 18-member security detail made up of armed personnel who guard him 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unprecedented for any previous EPA administration. Some members of the security detail were responsible for investigating environmental crimes but now are guarding the EPA chief directly, MSNBC reported.
Meanwhile, Trump’s budget proposal includes a nearly 24 percent cut in funds for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, which houses the Office of Civil Enforcement.
The Trump administration is defending the 24/7 detail, claiming Pruitt is attracting an unusually large number of threats to his security. The EPA has declined to provide a specific number of threats against the EPA administrator.
The increased spending on Pruitt’s private flights and security is occurring at the same time that the Trump administration wants to cut the EPA’s $8-million greenhouse gas reporting program and its $7-million environmental justice program, initiatives that could be saved by Pruitt tightening his own belt and the Trump administration putting greater value in combating climate change and toxic conditions faced by communities of color.