Ex-EPA Chief Logged $124,000 in Improper Travel Costs, Watchdog Finds
Detailed review of Scott Pruitt’s trips makes 14 recommendations, some of which the agency rejects.
Ten months after Scott Pruitt was forced to resign his post atop the Environmental Protection Agency, a watchdog’s review of his questionable travel charges showed nearly $124,000 in “excessive airfare expenses.”
EPA’s Office of Inspector General’s audit analyzed 40 trips (including six that were cancelled) totaling some $985,000 from March 1, 2017, to Dec. 31, 2017. It faulted many of the agency’s approval procedures, making 14 recommendations for improvements—some of which agency managers contested.
In a statement, EPA said it has no plans to bill Pruitt for costs the IG deemed excessive, noting "the trips were authorized by an appropriate official, making cost recovery inappropriate."
Pruitt, whose controversial tenure at EPA included scandal-level news coverage of his trips overseas and to his home state of Oklahoma, extensive security staffing, acceptance of discounted rent in Washington from an energy lobbyist, and spending on a sound-proof phone booth in his office.
The watchdog’s new 78-page report focuses on the use of first-class and business-class travel, prompted by numerous congressional requests and hotline complaints, the IG said.
“The EPA’s travel policies lacked a clear delegation of authority for approving the administrator’s travel,” the report said, adding, however, that corrective actions are now in place. “The EPA and its employees did not always justify the use of non-contract air carriers,” it added, and “compliance with federal regulations in the selection of first/business class carrier and flights was not documented."
Lodging costs above the usual per diem went through unchallenged, and documentation was lacking to verify that Pruitt’s frequent trips to his home town of Tulsa did not add to taxpayer expenses. “We identified no specific criteria that would limit the administrator’s travel to, or stops in, Tulsa for the weekend or otherwise,” the auditors acknowledged, noting that 10 trips that included weekend stops in Tulsa, which showed no official business being conducted, and that Pruitt paid his own airfare to Tulsa. However, the travel regulations require “travelers to take the direct or usually traveled route, unless the agency approves otherwise. If an indirect route is used for personal convenience, government reimbursement is limited up to the cost of travel by a direct route” and specific justification is required, the report noted.
As a result, “the frequency and duration of the former administrator’s and his staff’s trips to, and stops in, Tulsa can: give the appearance that trips were being planned for the benefit of the former administrator so that he could travel to his personal residence; call into question the necessity of the trips [and] result in additional travel time for the former administrator’s PSD agents and increased costs.”
Also, EPA “improperly approved business-class travel for Protective Service Detail agents and other staff accompanying the administrator on international travel,” the report said. But Pruitt’s use of military and chartered flights was justified and approved in accordance with regulations, the IG said.
“The EPA’s management of its travel program has been a persistent area of concern for the Office of Inspector General,” said Deputy Inspector General Charles Sheehan in a release. “If the agency’s internal controls over travel aren’t strengthened, abuses may continue to occur at great cost to EPA programs and taxpayers.” He noted that EPA’s travel program had been found lacking in audits going back to 2011, 2013 and 2015.
The IG recommended, among other actions, that EPA’s chief financial officer review Pruitt’s trips and strengthen travel controls.
Four of the 14 recommendations are now closed, and Administrator Andrew Wheeler in March re-delegated authority to approve non-coach travel from the CFO to the Office of the Controller. But EPA managers disagreed with several of the remaining 10 recommendations, arguing that sufficient authority to approve the upgraded travel existed, and that there is no need to recover any costs.
The IG disagreed, saying some of the managers’ comments lacked analysis and were “unresponsive.”
This story has been updated to note EPA's response to the IG's findings.