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EPA watchdog suggests agency recover $124,000 in Pruitt’s 'excessive’ travel expenses

Agency rejects the idea, calling ‘cost recovery inappropriate’ because officials had approved Pruitt’s trips at the time

Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in his office at EPA headquarters. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Environmental Protection Agency should consider recovering nearly $124,000 in improper travel expenses by former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, the agency’s inspector general recommended Thursday.

The findings, issued nearly a year after Pruitt resigned amid controversy over his spending, travel and ties to lobbyists and outside groups, highlight the fiscal impact of his penchant for high-end travel and accommodations. Investigators concluded that 40 trips Pruitt either took or scheduled during a 10-month period, between March 1 and Dec. 31, 2017, cost taxpayers $985,037.

The bulk of those expenses were for Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail, which billed $428,896 in travel costs. The agency spent an additional $339,894 on staffers traveling with the former administrator. The “questioned amount” the inspector general’s office identifies for possible recovery is the $123,941 that taxpayers spent on flying both Pruitt and a security agent in first- or business class, instead of coach.

The report also highlights the extent to which Pruitt’s official travel revolved around trips to Tulsa, Okla., where he maintained a home while a member of President Trump’s Cabinet. It noted that out of the 40 trips investigators scrutinized, 16 included “travel to, or stops in, Oklahoma."

The EPA watchdog details a litany of other problems with the way Pruitt and his entourage rang up “excessive costs" using taxpayer money: Exceptions for first- and business-class travel were approved for Pruitt and his security detail “without sufficient justification,” and “approved by an individual who did not initially have the authority to grant such approval.” In addition, lodging costs in excess of 150 percent of per diem guidelines “were not approved and/or adequately justified”; international trip reports were “inaccurate and incomplete.”

“Actions are needed to strengthen controls over the EPA’s travel and prevent fraud, waste and abuse,” the inspector general’s office writes.

For Pruitt, after EPA, the high life

EPA said in response to the report that the agency had a long-standing policy of allowing travel other than coach class. Its general counsel’s office had issued an opinion determining that the acting controller “had the authority to grant first-class exceptions. Therefore, in evaluating the delegation EPA believes that the trips were authorized by an appropriate official, making cost recovery inappropriate.”

Pruitt’s lawyer Cleta Mitchell said in an email that the report confirmed he had followed proper procedures while at the agency.

“The administrator at all times followed the procedures and processes dictated by the EPA travel office as well as the EPA General Counsel’s Office,” Mitchell said. “In fact, the agency in its review unequivocally concluded and determined that all costs associated with airfare and travel in the report were valid and proper, and appropriately, there is no action required to recover any costs.”

Then-President Trump tweeted on July 5, 2018, that Scott Pruitt had resigned as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

There is a precedent for a Trump administration Cabinet member reimbursing taxpayers for at least a portion of costs determined to be improper: Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price announced the day before he resigned that he had written a personal check to the U.S. Treasury for $51,887.31 to offset charter and military flights he took in 2017. However, that agency’s inspector general later urged recovery of at least $341,000 from Price after investigating his use of private and military aircraft.

And former EPA Regional Administrator Wayne Nastri, who served under George W. Bush, reimbursed the agency roughly $4,0000 after the agency’s inspector general determined in a 2015 audit that he improperly charged EPA for expenses associated with trips to his home in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

EPA spokesman John Konkus said in an email that Nasri’s case was “not comparable because in the case of Scott Pruitt, our career staff found that his costs were justified and supported.”

IG investigators concluded that Pruitt’s use of chartered and military flights while at EPA “was justified and approved in accordance with regulations.” Those trips included one on an Interior Department plane to the Oklahoma panhandle that cost $14,434 and another in which a military jet carried Pruitt to New York at a cost of $36,068 so that he could catch a flight to Italy for an international meeting of environmental ministers.

The vast majority of Pruitt’s travel costs — 82 percent — stemmed from his airfare, the report found. During the 10 months investigators analyzed, $878,336 was from trips that Pruitt took, and $106,701 came from six trips that were canceled. The report did not examine flights during 2018, though Pruitt primarily flew coach after The Washington Post detailed his extensive first-class travels in February that year.

In a 2017 memo obtained by The Post under a public records request, the head of Pruitt’s security detail wrote that the controversial administrator was being recognized more often in public and that those guarding him had noticed “at times lashing out from passengers, which occurs while the Administrator is seated in coach with [his personal security detail] not easily accessible to him due to uncontrolled full flights.”

As a result, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta wrote, “We believe that the continued use of coach seats for the Administrator would endanger his life, and therefore respectfully ask that he be placed in either business or first class accommodations.” The memo, and officials’ argument that Pruitt faced greater security threats than his predecessors, was used as a basis for the EPA chief to routinely fly first class.

Last year, a Post investigation found that the former administrator also exceeded the government rate for hotels and other daily expenses by more than 150 percent on 17 of his trips, largely because he routinely chose to stay in boutique hotels. The inspector general’s office identified a similar pattern, concluding that Pruitt’s costs exceeded the daily government rate by more than 150 percent on 10 of the 34 trips it examined.

In other instances, the report identified instances where the agency lacked a detailed accounting for expenses or justification for some of Pruitt’s trips, such as ones with stops in Tulsa.

The new findings effectively end the agency watchdog’s probe into Pruitt, who now works as consultant to coal companies.

In November, the inspector general closed two inquiries into his conduct without reaching any conclusions because he resigned as administrator before he could be interviewed. Those investigations focused on Pruitt’s use of staff members for personal purposes and a condo rental deal he made with a lobbyist.

The office did not make a finding as to whether Pruitt violated federal law, according to its semiannual report to Congress, saying in each case that “the result of the investigation was inconclusive.”