EPA chief sat in coach when not flying on taxpayer’s dime
WASHINGTON (AP) — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt flew in coach-class seats on at least two trips home to Oklahoma when taxpayers weren’t footing the bill, despite claims he needed to travel in first class at government expense because of security threats.
Copies of Pruitt’s official schedule released this week following a public records request show flights made in August and October to Tulsa on Southwest Airlines, a budget carrier that doesn’t offer premium-class seats.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that an EPA official said the administrator sat in coach on personal flights to watch college football games using a companion pass obtained with frequent flyer miles accrued by Ken Wagner, a former law partner Pruitt hired as one of his senior advisers at EPA. The official spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of retaliation.
Pruitt’s full-time security team still accompanied him on the trips to Oklahoma, with their travel expenses still borne by taxpayers. The EPA administrator has said the agency’s security officials determined that he should fly in first class during government trips following “unpleasant interactions” with other airline passengers.
Asked Wednesday about the records reviewed by AP, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said “the same security procedures are followed whether Administrator Pruitt is on official or personal travel.” Wilcox did not directly respond to why Pruitt didn’t need to fly in first class on the personal flights.
EPA ethics lawyer Kevin Minoli also confirmed for the first time that Pruitt flew on a companion pass during the personal flights, reimbursing Wagner for a $5.60 airline fee and half the cost of the adviser’s ticket. The agency did not disclose the original cost of Wagner’s ticket or whether he paid for it with frequent flyer miles.
Minoli added that EPA ethics officials are now consulting with the Office of Government Ethics to determine “whether any additional steps needed to be taken to ensure full compliance with the ethics requirements.”
Former Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub said Wednesday the companion tickets provided to Pruitt likely violated a federal prohibition that bars officials from accepting gifts from their subordinates exceeding $10. Shaub said the value of the gift is determined not by what Wagner actually paid for the ticket, but what the full market value would have been had the ticket been purchased with cash.
“EPA’s discussion of the discounted price that the donor paid is disingenuous,” said Shaub, who resigned last year after clashing with President Donald Trump on ethics issues. “In this case, EPA should look to see what Pruitt would have had to pay if he had purchased the ticket on the day that he accepted the gift of free airfare from his subordinate.”
Shaub said he expected his former colleagues in the Office of Government Ethics would advise Pruitt that it was inappropriate for him to accept the gifted airfare from an EPA employee and that he must repay Wagner at full market value.
The cut-rate airfare is the latest ethical issue to ensnare Pruitt, who has been under intense scrutiny since it was first revealed last month that he had stayed last year in a bargain-priced Capitol Hill condo tied to a fossil-fuels lobbyist.
The embattled EPA administrator and those around him are the subject of multiple investigations launched by government watchdogs and congressional committees looking into luxury travel expenses, outsized security spending and massive raises awarded to political appointees.
Follow Associated Press environmental reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck