Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee this week to discuss his agency’s budget for fiscal year (FY) 2019. In addition to typical questions about EPA rulemakings and funding levels for projects in senators’ home states, the administrator was asked to answer for some of the many dubious spending decisions he’s made to date. In response, Mr. Pruitt largely denied knowledge or responsibility for them. As a result, taxpayers are left with little explanation for why our money was wasted, and no accountability for it.
Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairman of the subcommittee, opened the hearing by lamenting the many questions she’s recently received about Mr. Pruitt’s behavior, and stated that many “legitimate questions” needed to be answered. In due course, other senators on the panel asked Mr. Pruitt about ethically questionable actions and extravagant expenditures reported by news organizations and official government watchdogs in recent months.
In particular, Mr. Pruitt was heavily questioned about his 20-member, 24/7 security detail. That amount of manpower is a marked increase from the roughly six-member teams that protected past EPA administrators during work hours only, and it comes at a quite a cost. According to news reports, the EPA spent more than $3 million on Mr. Pruitt’s security detail in just his first year on the job. The EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) is also investigating why that team accompanied Mr. Pruitt on personal trips to Disneyland with his family and the Rose Bowl to watch the Oklahoma Sooners play.
In previous public statements, Mr. Pruitt claimed the heightened level of security was necessitated by threats the EPA received after he took office. Just two days before the hearing, however, the EPA OIG released documents contradicting the administrator. In a letter, the OIG wrote:
The EPA Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training has informed the OIG that the EPA’ s Protective Service Detail began providing 24/7 coverage of the Administrator the first day he arrived at the EPA. 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. [OIG Letters, p. 5, emphasis added]
That is, the decision to expand the security detail was in place before Mr. Pruitt sat at his desk for the first time. Despite repeated questions from senators about his request cited by the OIG, Mr. Pruitt refused to acknowledge any part in why the security detail was beefed up.
Senators also inquired about other instances of suspect behavior, including:
- Pruitt renting a condo for cheap from the wife of a lobbyist with business before the EPA;
- Pruitt traveling in Morocco accompanied by another lobbyist who registered as a foreign agent and signed a retroactive $40,000/month lobbying contract for Morocco afterward;
- An EPA staffer hunting for apartments for Mr. Pruitt during work hours;
- Pruitt requesting lights and sirens to get through traffic when running late; etc.
In almost all cases, Mr. Pruitt either denied wrongdoing, claimed he wasn’t aware of his staff’s behavior, or couldn’t recall certain events.
The inquiries into Mr. Pruitt’s behavior, however, were not exhaustive. Mr. Pruitt was asked why he hadn’t complied with Anti-Deficiency Act reporting requirements following the Government Accountability Office’s determination that spending $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth in his office was illegal. But no one queried why such a booth was necessary when the EPA already had two certified secure communications facilities. Nor was he asked about spending more than $160,000 flying first-class, on charter planes, and a military plane. Or, why the EPA leased a fully-loaded SUV complete with Kevlar seat covers for Mr. Pruitt when they had another already on lease. Or, about reports that he wanted to set up a satellite EPA office in his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma and get a $100,000 membership for a private jet. Or, about a range of personnel situations, including huge raises for favored staffers over White House objections, and alleged retaliation when staffers objected to Pruitt’s extravagance.
It’s likely that the large number of investigations into Mr. Pruitt’s behavior – between 11 and 16 depending on whom you ask – will yield answers to some of these questions. But until then, or until taxpayers understand why our money was wasted, it’s clear that Congress needs to keep scrutinizing Mr. Pruitt and his management of the EPA. Cabinet officials are given broad discretion to run vast government institutions, but when they fail to uphold the public trust or use taxpayer resources to serve the public interest, they need to be held to account.