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EPA's Scott Pruitt took charter, military flights that cost taxpayers more than $58,000

| Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, 9:21 p.m.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February, costing taxpayers more than $58,000 to fly him to various parts of the country, according to records provided to a congressional oversight committee and obtained by The Washington Post.

"When the administrator travels, he takes commercial flights," EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said Wednesday, explaining that the one charter flight and three government flights were due to particular circumstances.

The EPA provided documents that outlined how its Office of General Counsel had given legal authorization for each trip. "The administrator, and any Cabinet secretary, is the face of that agency. They're very outward facing, and we have an obligation to get out throughout the country," Bowman said.

The most expensive of the four trips came in early June, when Pruitt traveled from Andrews Air Force Base to Cincinnati to join President Trump as he pitched a plan to revamp U.S. infrastructure. From there, the administrator and several staff members continued on a military jet to John F. Kennedy airport in New York to catch a flight to Italy for an international meeting of environmental ministers. The cost of that flight was $36,068.50.

The EPA said in travel documents that the White House had approved the trip and that "no viable commercial flights" would have allowed Pruitt to make his plane to Italy, where he had "scheduled meetings with Vatican officials the next day." His official calendar listed meetings with the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, and a roundtable discussion with the Italian Court of Appeals.

On July 27, records show, Pruitt and six staff members arranged a flight on a Department of Interior plane from Tulsa to the tiny outpost of Guymon, Okla., at a cost of $14,434.50. The EPA noted that "time constraints" on Pruitt's schedule wouldn't allow him to make the 10-hour round-trip drive. The purpose of the trip was to meet with landowners "whose farms have been affected" by a controversial rule regulating water bodies in the United States, according to the agency. Pruitt has initiated a process to withdraw the regulation, known as the Waters of the United States rule.

Bowman said that between 50 and 100 farmers and others from Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas attended the session in Guymon.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., listed details on the noncommercial flights in a Sept. 26 letter to the EPA's inspector general. Whitehouse, whose office would not comment Wednesday, asked for an investigation into the Guymon trip. Pruitt returned to Oklahoma City around 2 p.m., records show. EPA officials informed Whitehouse that he met there with state officials, though Pruitt's calendar lists only an "editorial board meeting" and "media interview" at 4 p.m. that day.

Pruitt and three staff members arranged a private air charter on Aug. 4, on a trip from Denver to Durango, Colo. The flight cost $5,719.58. According to the EPA, the commercial flight Pruitt had planned to take "was delayed ultimately for eight hours, which would have caused him to miss a mission critical meeting at Gold King Mine" with Gov. John Hickenlooper and other officials. Hickenlooper offered a seat on his plane, but Bowman said that the governor's aircraft only had room for Pruitt and that the EPA already had booked the private plane by then. The charter company involved, Mayo Aviation, bills itself as "Colorado's premier jet charter service."

That day, Pruitt criticized how two years earlier EPA had mishandled operations at the Gold King Mine, where the agency inadvertently triggered a spill that polluted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. "The previous administration failed those who counted on them to protect the environment," he said in a statement, vowing to reconsider claims for damages the government previously had denied.

Finally, on Aug. 9, Pruitt and two staffers traveling in North Dakota flew on a state-owned plane to an event in Grand Forks. The flight cost the EPA $2,144.40. "The Governor of the State of North Dakota offered seats on the state-owned plane to transport the Administrator to this event," the agency noted in its justification for the trip, which involved touring the University of North Dakota's Environmental Research Center. "There is no government rate established for this route."

The records also indicate that Pruitt, along with a member of his security detail, flies either in business or first class when those seats are available on commercial flights. Multiple EPA travel documents state that Pruitt "is entitled to business class accommodation due to security concerns."

Bowman said that while Pruitt flies in such classes when that is an option, he has also flown on multiple occasions in coach.

Delaware Sen. Thomas Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, questioned in a statement why Pruitt would rely on noncommercial aircraft to travel for his work.

"Most people can't lease a plane to fly around," Carper said. "I think as a public servant, you have to try to set some sort of example."

Last month, the EPA's inspector general announced that it would launch a preliminary probe into Pruitt's travels to Oklahoma. The internal watchdog said the inquiry was triggered by "congressional requests and a hotline complaint, all of which expressed concerns about Administrator Pruitt's travel — primarily his frequent travel to and from his home state of Oklahoma at taxpayer expense."

The probe was triggered in part by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group that found through public records requests that Pruitt had spent nearly half of the days in March, April and May in Oklahoma.

"Administrator Pruitt's extensive travel to Oklahoma, and expensive travel within Oklahoma, suggests disproportionate attention to his home state," Whitehouse wrote, adding that the inspector general should add the Guymon visit to his probe and examine why six staffers accompanied Pruitt there. "As part of your review, I further request you examine whether this trip, and the size and composition of his entourage, is consistent with the travel expenditures of prior EPA administrators."

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