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Public confrontations prompted Pruitt to switch to first-class travel, EPA says

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, at agency headquarters in November. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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This story has been updated.

Verbal confrontations with members of the public prompted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to switch to flying first or business class whenever possible, officials said Thursday.

Henry Barnet, who directs EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training, said in an interview that the head of Pruitt’s security detail, Pasquale Perrotta, recommended in May that he fly in either first or business class to provide “a buffer” between him and the public. Perrotta’s memo was prompted by an incident that month when a person approached Pruitt “with threatening language” that was “vulgar,” Barnet said.

“They felt they could not protect him appropriately, based on the amount of times he was being recognized and the way that some members of the public were acting toward him in a threatening manner,” Barnet said.

Barnet said he was “not aware of any physical confrontations” the administrator has faced since taking office a year ago. But compared to the verbal insults and threatening language Pruitt’s immediate predecessors dealt with, “it’s much more prevalent with this administrator. And he’s recognized much more when he travels.”

Seating Pruitt in first class offers security advantages for “a multitude of reasons,” including the chance to make a quick exit if a situation arises, Barnet said.

The EPA did not immediately release details about that May incident or the memo with the new security recommendation. The agency has declined to release the travel waiver that it uses to justify Pruitt’s premium-class flights or to say who signed off on the decision.

Asked whether a member of Pruitt’s security detail always travels in first or business class with him, Barnett declined to provide specifics out of security concerns but said, “We try to have an agent with the administrator at all times, near the administrator.”

Pruitt’s predecessor, Gina McCarthy, flew coach for every trip she took except for one trip to Davos, Switzerland, when she was upgraded, according to a former EPA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security arrangements. A member of McCarthy’s security detail would sit in an “adjacent or adjoining seat,” the official added, whether behind her or just across the aisle.

Pruitt’s travel practices have come under renewed increasing scrutiny after The Washington Post detailed this week how his trips have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. His many first-class flights include a $1,641.43 trip from Washington to New York last June and a $7,003.52 round-trip ticket to Italy last summer. Pruitt also has taken numerous first-class flights — typically ranging from $2,000 to $2,600 — to events in his home state of Oklahoma, where he often stays the weekend.

In a subsequent interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Pruitt alluded to the fact that his upgrades stemmed from public confrontations “in the March to April time frame.”

“We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment,” he told the paper. “We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace, and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat.”

Pruitt emphasized that members of his security detail decide his travel arrangements: “I’m not involved in any of those decisions. Those are all made by the detail, the security assessment in addition to the chief of staff.”

Barnet, a seven-year EPA veteran, said he doesn’t “approve or do anything with the administrator’s travel — that goes through the administrator’s office.” But he said he is responsible for dispatching agents to accompany Pruitt at all times.

While the agency’s Office of Inspector General does not publicly discuss the actual number of threats against Pruitt or others at the EPA, it has said investigators opened more cases during fiscal 2017 than in the previous year. Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson, each of whom led the EPA under President Barack Obama and were controversial figures in their own right, had security teams of about a half-dozen individuals. That number has roughly tripled under Pruitt and become a 24/7 operation.

The Post reported last fall that agents normally charged with probing environmental crimes were being pulled off their normal duties to bolster Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail.

Barnet said the EPA had hired enough agents that it was no longer having investigators do that job. “We are up to speed in terms of the size of the team we need to protect the administrator,” he said, though he declined to disclose numbers.

“One thing we’ve done as of January, we’ve begun to do threat assessments every 90 days to evaluate and reevaluate to make sure we’re using the proper protocol for [Pruitt’s] travel protection,” he said. While threats against him “go up and down,” he has faced them continuously since joining the administration, Barnet noted.

Read more:

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