Pruitt ended his housing arrangement with lobbyist Vicki Hart on Aug. 4. At that point, he already had embarked on a more than week-long trip across five states to visit with elected officials and farmers about the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda, with a weekend at home in Tulsa along the way.
He then took an extended vacation, according to agency records, during which time officials said that he underwent knee surgery and recuperated at home while receiving staff briefings. After another round of meetings in Oklahoma and a visit to Texas to survey the damage from Hurricane Harvey, Pruitt returned to EPA headquarters Sept. 5, according to his public calendars. Members of his round-the-clock security detail remained with him while he was away from Washington.
While EPA has declined to disclose when the administrator began renting his second Washington apartment in the U Street area, the new building was under construction much of the summer, and no residents moved into the complex before Aug. 29, according to the property.
Multiple agency employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Pruitt had instructed his staff to arrange the extensive travel schedule during early August. Another individual involved in his housing search said Pruitt continued to consider different rental options and made clear he would be away much of the month.
Since he took office 14 months ago, EPA has not divulged much in advance about Pruitt’s schedule or his whereabouts when traveling on government business.
A statement Wednesday from agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox noted Pruitt’s surgery in Tulsa last August and said he “remained there for recovery. During that time he had a number of staff briefings.”
In an interview Wednesday with The Washington Times, Pruitt complained about The Washington Post’s inquiry about his living situation eight months ago, saying it was an example of “how crazy” the scrutiny surrounding him has become.
“It was during recess, while the president was in Mar-a-Lago, etcetera. And so I scheduled this [surgery]. I had complications. I had physical therapy,” he said. “The next thing … is going to be, ‘Do you like brown shoes or black shoes?’ So, it gets frustrating.”
Pruitt dismissed the recent attention on his ethics decisions as “a distraction” from critics trying to undermine the effective job he has done rolling back Obama-era regulations. “It’s been noisy and competitive since day one, because this agency has been a bastion of liberalism since day one.”
His travel plans also had included a 10-day trip to Australia that was slated to begin Aug. 31, but it was canceled after Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast. “The official trip to Australia was canceled as soon as Hurricane Harvey hit the U.S., and the administrator instead traveled to Texas for hurricane briefings and EPA responsiveness,” Wilcox added.
Pruitt’s decision not to maintain a fixed address in the city where he was leading a major federal agency underscores how he has operated during his tenure — crisscrossing the country and parts of the world to tout the president’s agenda but regularly returning to Oklahoma, often at taxpayer expense.
In recent weeks, Pruitt has been dogged by revelations that he took dozens of first-class flights during his government travels, which EPA officials have argued was necessary due to security concerns, as well as by the disclosure of a housing agreement he struck during his early months in Washington with the wife of a lobbyist he knew from Oklahoma. Under that arrangement, Pruitt paid for a room in the condo a block from the Capitol but only paid for the nights he stayed. Both his living and travel arrangements have drawn inquiries from lawmakers and government investigators.
“We’re reviewing the situation,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday when asked about the controversies surrounding Pruitt. “The president thinks that he’s done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front. But again, we take this seriously, and we’re looking into it. And we’ll let you know when we finish.”
Environmental Integrity Project Executive Director Eric Schaeffer said Pruitt’s month away from Washington last August raises additional cost and transparency questions.
“Since Mr. Pruitt has insisted on round-the-clock protection, every day he spends in Oklahoma means taxpayers are covering hotel and food bills for his security detail,” Schaeffer said. “EPA needs to come clean and give us a full accounting of where Mr. Pruitt was, how his time was spent and how much it cost for him to operate out of Tulsa instead of the office of the agency he heads.”
Pruitt has given interviews in the past 24 hours to several conservative media outlets, arguing that he has come under fire for his housing and travel logistics by people who oppose the president’s policies.
“Do I think that because we are leading on this agenda that there are some who want to keep that from happening?” he told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday. “Absolutely. And do I think that they will resort to anything to achieve that? Yes.”
Referring to his rental arrangement with Vicki Hart, Pruitt said he “was living out of a suitcase for the first four or five months I was here.” He said he had known her husband, J. Steven Hart, whose law firm lobbies on energy as well as other matters, long before moving to Washington.
“I’m dumbfounded that that’s controversial,” Pruitt said of the condo rental.
In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Pruitt elaborated on the arrangement. “This was like an Airbnb situation. … When I was not there, the landlord, they had access to the entirety of the facility,” he said. “When I was there, I only had access to a room.”
He also told Fox he had learned Tuesday that his senior counsel, Sarah Greenwalt, and his director of scheduling and advance, Millan Hupp, had gotten raises in March of 52 percent and 33 percent respectively. Hupp had overseen Pruitt’s housing hunt last year. Her and Greenwalt’s pay increases went through after the two were reappointed under an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“I found out this yesterday, and I corrected the action, and we are in the process of finding out how it took place and correcting that going forward,” Pruitt said.
“So, hang on. Both of these staffers who got these large pay raises are friends of yours. I believe from Oklahoma, right?” Fox’s Ed Henry asked.
“They are staffers here in the agency,” Pruitt replied.
“They are friends of yours,” Henry said.
“Well, they serve a very important person,” Pruitt replied.
“And you did not know that they got these large pay raises?” Henry asked.
“I did not know that they got pay raises until yesterday,” Pruitt said.