When he faced a Senate appropriations subcommittee recently, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt had the opportunity to show some contrition or understanding of why his extravagant spending has undermined confidence in his leadership at the EPA, but he didn’t take it.
At the top of the hearing, the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), gave Pruitt an opportunity to address the questions and scandals about his spending. Instead of addressing them head on, he chose once again to discuss his work to further the president’s agenda.
When questioned about specific issues, including first-class flights, the installation of an expensive privacy booth, and allowing a high-level employee to continue to get paid despite repeatedly not showing up to work, he gave a series of defensive non-answers in the passive voice. Decisions were made, many not by him, including some already in place on his first day, which were not determined by him. The privacy booth was installed contrary to law because a legal review was not done. Assuming he remembered, because he couldn’t recall. He even flatly refused to acknowledge evidence of some specific incidents, including asking for 24/7 security.
When you’re the boss, you’re responsible from the minute you’re sworn in. No one had to twist Pruitt’s arm to accept this appointment. Past EPA administrators managed to update their offices without violating the Antideficiency Act, as Pruitt did, with the same procedures in place.
Given that the spending decisions were extravagant and ran into the hundreds of thousands, Pruitt’s answers were particularly unconvincing with the “I don’t recall”-s and “That shouldn’t have happened”-s that offered no accountability, responsibility or even an acknowledgement of events in question.
Take for example the excessive security measures Pruitt has taken. Of course, Pruitt and every member of the cabinet need to be kept safe. But no other cabinet member installed a $43,000 soundproof phone booth or insisted on $6,000 biometric locks. And the soundproof booth simply offers more privacy in his already private office; to discuss classified or sensitive information, he still needs to use the two secure communications facilities at the EPA, because the phone booth does not meet the standards for sensitive communications. Not to mention, the EPA racked up more than $3 million in expenses for Pruitt’s security team and their travel arrangements in just his first year.
Pruitt had a 20-person, 24/7 security detail that also accompanied him and his family to Disneyland and an Oklahoma football game at the Rose Bowl. In contrast, his predecessor had a six-person detail and no off-hour security.
Pruitt’s explanation is that other people made those decisions. He just went along. He dodged questions about whether he asked for any of these items, and even in the face of correspondence proving he did ask for the extra security, he repeated over and over that security professionals make the final decisions. So that leaves observers to conclude one of two things: Either Mr. Pruitt is such a poor leader that he simply doesn’t know what is happening in his own office, or he simply made no effort to be a wise steward of taxpayer dollars. Either he has a lights-on-nobody-home level of unawareness or a propensity to spend the public’s money with profligate ease. Or both.
As if that weren’t enough, new records show that what Pruitt was actually able to spend may pale in comparison to what his grand plans would have cost taxpayers. One plan was to set up a brand new satellite EPA office in his hometown of Tulsa, complete with custom accommodations for 24-hour security and another soundproof phone booth. He also looked into leasing a private plane for $100,000 a month to travel even more comfortably.
Pruitt’s spending decisions scale up internationally. A trip to Morocco clocked in at $100,000, including a $494 Paris hotel room on the way back. Meanwhile, a $120,000, four-day trip to Italy last summer for a G-7 meeting included all of four hours of work-related meetings, plus a private tour of the Vatican, and on transport, food and hotels. All of this in addition to over-the-top raises – over White House objections – for staffers who came with him from Oklahoma, and a sweetheart deal on rent from a lobbyist at well below market price.
It is wholly unsurprising at this point that the administrator now finds himself the subject of a dozen federal investigations for ethics violations and brazen abuse of taxpayer funds. In response, he is setting up a legal defense fund (or as he would say, a legal defense fund is being set up – lest he get carried away and use the first person and active voice). When asked about donations to this fund, Pruitt had the same stonewalling, evasive, point-the-finger responses that provide no clarity and do nothing to dispel doubts about his judgment or lack thereof.
Pruitt’s defenders say he’s being targeted by those who want to derail his progress and oppose the president’s agenda. That is absurd. Yes, the president will appoint those who share the administration’s priorities. No, Pruitt is not the only one who can do the job. And all appointees and public servants need to remember that the money they spend in carrying out their office is the taxpayers’.
Their spending decisions should reflect the needs of the taxpayer – nothing less, nothing more. And once they’re in office, the buck stops with them.