This post has been updated.
Scott Pruitt began receiving round-the-clock security from the moment he stepped foot inside the Environmental Protection Agency in February 2017, at the behest of a Trump administration political appointee, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.
The EPA’s inspector general said in a letter Monday that Pruitt got extensive protection from the very start of his tenure but did not clarify who requested it. The separate series of emails obtained by The Washington Post shows that the decision to provide Pruitt with 24/7 coverage was made by Don Benton, a Republican former Washington state senator who served as the agency’s senior White House adviser in the first weeks of the new administration.
“EPA’s Protective Service Detail began providing 24/7 coverage of the Administrator the first day he arrived,” Inspector General Arthur Elkins wrote in response to inquiries from Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) about what threats prompted Pruitt’s nonstop security, which has cost in excess of $3 million. “The decision was made by the Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training after being informed that Mr. Pruitt requested 24/7 protection once he was confirmed as Administrator.”
The inspector general’s office, which investigates threats made against any EPA employee, “played no role in this decision,” Elkins added.
In a Feb. 12, 2017, email to several EPA security officials, Benton framed the decision as a precautionary measure given the controversy sure to ensue from some of the president’s early policy decisions. “I have requested 24-7 protection for the new administrator for the first week at least and then evaluate from there,” Benton wrote.
“There will be several Executive Orders signed when [Pruitt] is sworn in that will likely stir the hornets nest and with the security issue in the Atlanta office last week as well as the lady who threatened former administrator [Gina] McCarthy not showing up for court and at large in DC it is best to be on the safe side,” he continued.
EPA officials discussed the increased costs and strain on the agency’s criminal-investigations division that would stem from such a move. The acting special agent in charge, Eric Weese, wrote colleagues that nonstop protection would entail doubling the number of agents on Pruitt’s security detail to 16.
Weese predicted this would be “a major disruption” to the division’s assets in the Mid-Atlantic region, “but there will be no other way to pull this off.”
Agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement Monday that, “as the report says, EPA’s Office of Inspector General does not determine security assessments. EPA’s Protective Service Detail handles security decisions and this particular decision was made before Administrator Pruitt arrived at EPA.”
Some Cabinet members routinely receive heightened security as part of their jobs, including the secretaries of defense, state and homeland security. FBI agents accompany the attorney general around the clock. But for other Cabinet posts, the level of protection varies, based on circumstances. Early in the Trump administration, for example, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos received a full protective detail, at an estimated initial cost of $1 million a month.
At the EPA, prior administrators have not typically received 24/7 protection. Pruitt’s immediate predecessor, McCarthy, typically had a security detail that accompanied her to work each day, to meetings and to events and dropped her off at home each night. The detail also traveled with her on official business. But McCarthy’s detail was roughly a third of the size of the one that guards Pruitt.
“While I did get threats, I did not feel like I was particularly under threat,” McCarthy said in a recent interview. She said she declined the agents’ proposal that she expand her protection. “I did what I thought was the minimum.”
Agency officials, including Pruitt, have said repeatedly that he has experienced far more threats than previous administrators. And Pruitt has maintained that he left decisions about the size and intensity of his security detail, as well as related decisions such as traveling first class for safety, to Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, the special agent in charge who took over after Weese was reassigned.
Perrotta, who has been under scrutiny for the expenditures related to Pruitt’s security and travel, retired from the agency late last month.
Grilled at a hearing on Capitol Hill last month about the need for such extensive security, Pruitt read directly from a list of alleged threats the inspector general had compiled last summer, including one posted on social media that read: “Pruitt, I’m gonna find you and put a bullet between your eyes. Don’t think I’m joking. I’m planning this.”
The 14 incidents collected by the inspector general to that point also included a “potentially threatening postcard” from a person who “expressed regret and apologized” when confronted by investigators, as well as a letter from a prison inmate that authorities concluded “did not reveal any overt threatening language.”
There were no confirmed threat cases open the day Pruitt took office, according to an individual with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
Elkins made clear in his letter Monday that his office “has never conducted a ‘threat assessment’ ” for Pruitt — a broader, more formal evaluation used to help determine what level and type of protection is warranted for an official.
“It includes all available information, including the results of threat investigations, but also other factors, such as notoriety, history of threats or violence directed against the person or event, other dangers or potentials dangers that may be associated with the person or event, and location,” Elkins wrote, adding, “The OIG is not a decision-maker for the EPA.”
Elkins said that the EPA’s front office asked the inspector general to undertake such an assessment in February 2017 but that he “declined and informed EPA management that it is not the role of the OIG to provide a threat assessment.” Later, he wrote, his office provided the list of threats it had investigated to Pruitt’s protective service detail, which was in the process of preparing its own threat assessment.
Perrotta wrote a brief memo May 1, 2017, requesting approval for Pruitt to begin flying first and business class whenever possible, based on security concerns. Perrotta said that Pruitt 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, Perrotta wanted a way to better control the environment around the EPA chief. “We believe that the continued use of coach seats for the Administrator would endanger his life,” he said. Earlier this year, after a public outcry over the cost of his travels, Pruitt said he instructed his detail to again seat him in coach class whenever feasible.
Whitehouse and Carper, who requested the information that Elkins ultimately provided Monday, said in a statement that Pruitt’s decision to request full-time security from the moment he took over at the EPA raises questions about his previous claims.
“A threat to a federal employee’s personal security is extremely serious, but so is using security as pretext for special treatment on the public dime,” the senators said. “This letter raises troubling questions about whether Administrator Pruitt told the truth during his testimony before the House. Now more than ever, Mr. Pruitt should come clean about his spending of taxpayer dollars on all manner of extravagances, and our colleagues on both sides of the aisle should demand he do so.”