Even before he was sworn in as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt was demonstrating the questionable judgment that has marked his 15-month tenure as head of the agency.
Working with his soon-to-be chief of staff, Pruitt explored the possibility of establishing an EPA office in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. If successful, Pruitt could have stayed in Tulsa to conduct much of his work. As it turned out, Pruitt was unable to get the office set up in 2017 and has since ended up traveling back to Tulsa on most weekends.
In January 2017, Ryan Jackson, who was working on the staff of Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) at the time, directed EPA staff to identify proposed new office space in Tulsa that included a conference room, secure parking, and secure communications space, according to information in a letter sent to Pruitt on Tuesday by three Democratic members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
On February 17, 2017, Pruitt was sworn in as EPA administrator. Jackson, who was several days away from joining the EPA himself, sent the email request for a Tulsa office to the EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations on January 31.
“It appears that even before he was confirmed, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had dreams of dismantling programs to protect air, water and kids from pollution from the comforts of an office in his hometown,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said Wednesday in a statement. “What better place to have a secure phone booth to receive instructions from the energy lobby, and avoid the pesky expertise of agency scientists and lawyers?”
In early 2017, the EPA’s staff followed Jackson’s orders, even though he was still serving as majority staff director of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, headed at the time by Inhofe. The EPA staff contacted a top official at the General Services Administration (GSA), informing him that the request for a Tulsa office was coming directly from Pruitt.
“Establishing a new EPA office in Tulsa may be personally convenient for you, but it seems ethically questionable, professionally unnecessary, and financially unjustified,” the three Democrats wrote. The letter is signed by Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee; Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), the top Democrat on the committee’s Environment subcommittee; and Don Beyer (D-VA), the top Democrat on the committee’s Oversight subcommittee.
The House members also noted that the EPA already had a regional office in Dallas, which is about 250 miles from Tulsa.
In the letter, the lawmakers said their goal was to fully understand the circumstances behind the request and find out the status of the inquires about a Tulsa office. They’ve requested all email communications between the EPA and the GSA about the proposed creation of a Tulsa office.
While Pruitt has yet to get an agency office in Tulsa, the EPA did spend $43,000 on a privacy phone booth in his office at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. In addition to the privacy booth in Pruitt’s office, there are two other sensitive compartmented information facilities, or SCIFs, at the EPA’s headquarters building, similar to the secure communications space he wanted at a Tulsa office.
The three Democrats also noted in their letter that documents previously obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Pruitt frequently traveled home to Tulsa on weekends during his first few months in office. In fact, the records showed that Pruitt traveled to Oklahoma dozens of times, at taxpayer’s expense, during his first six months as administrator.
Inhofe, who has strongly supported Pruitt as EPA administrator, recently expressed concern about the EPA chief’s spending habits and the ethics questions surrounding him. “I’ve known him since he was in the state legislature and supported him,” Inhofe told the New York Times last week. “These are accusations I did not know anything about.”
White Pruitt’s job currently appears to be safe, two top EPA officials announced their resignations on Tuesday. Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, who led Pruitt’s 24-hour security detail, and Albert “Kell” Kelly, who was in charge of the agency’s Superfund program, both left the agency.
Last week, Pruitt faced extensive questioning before two House committees. Democrats portrayed him as an embarrassment to the Trump administration and called on him to resign, while most Republicans defended him.
Despite surviving the hearings relatively unscathed, controversy continues to swirl around Pruitt. Questions have arisen this week about the role played by lobbyists in Pruitt’s trip to Morocco last December and a planned trip to Australia that was canceled due to Hurricane Harvey hitting the Gulf Coast.
Pruitt’s ability to survive all of the scandals has many in Washington perplexed. Some attribute Pruitt’s ability to keep his job to his dedication to ignoring EPA’s core responsibilities: protecting the environment and human health.
“Trump means what he says about people looking strong as opposed to weak,” a Republican consultant told CBS News. “Pruitt hasn’t backed down in the face of some searing criticism — even from people in his own party. He hasn’t backed down and Trump probably likes that.”