It seems like an eternity ago that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned amid an uproar over the expensive, chartered flights he took on the taxpayer’s dime. Alas, it was just last September. But it was a big deal to President Donald Trump, because in racking up at least $400,000 in travel bills, Price broke Trump’s most important campaign promise: to drain the swamp. Price’s profligacy even spurred a change to the administration’s travel policy. “All cabinet travel requests now must be cleared by the White House,” The New York Times reported.
Presumably, that means the White House has approved the exorbitant flights taken recently by Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Pruitt’s frequent first-class travel includes a $1,600 flight from D.C. to New York and two $4,443 round-trip flights to Alabama, and that he took a $36,000 military jet from Cincinnati to New York—so he could catch his first-class flight to Rome. Pruitt also brings a large security detail and top aides with him on every trip, increasing his travel bill compared to past administrators. In all, the Post reported, Pruitt and his entourage racked up at least $90,000 in travel bills—and that was just the month of June.
On Tuesday evening, CBS News revealed another costly flight: $7,000 round-trip to Milan on Emirates, “whose business class cabins are some of the world’s most luxurious... The entire trip cost more than $43,000 dollars, according to travel vouchers obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project.”
Federal regulations dictate that government employees be “prudent” about travel. They must book “the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs.” One of the only exceptions is when there are “exceptional security circumstances,” meaning “use of coach class accommodations would endanger your life or government property.” The EPA told the Post that this has been the case for Pruitt, though it did not detail specific threats that prohibit Pruitt from flying coach, as most members of Congress and other cabinet officials do.
Initially, the Post’s report didn’t appear to bother Pruitt. On Tuesday—not 48 hours after the Post published its story—he was spotted by Politico boarding a plane for yet another first-class trip, this time to Boston. But things got confusing after Politico’s report. When asked to confirm whether Pruitt took a first-class flight to Boston, an EPA spokesperson dodged. “We encourage you to contact Politico about the accuracy of their reporting,” Jahan Wilcox told me in an email. Pressed further, Wilcox still would not confirm that Pruitt’s flight was first-class. “We follow the recommendations of security personnel,” he said.
Pruitt’s flight to Boston took him to an interview with the New Hampshire Union-Leader, which asked him directly. Pruitt confirmed his flight to Boston was first class, and told the paper that he faces exceptional security circumstances. “Unfortunately, ... we’ve had some incidents on travel dating back to when I first started serving in the March-April timeframe,” he said, adding:
We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment. We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the [security] detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat.
The Washington Post reported in September that Pruitt receives far more personal threats than the most recent EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy. She received only 9 percent of threats against the EPA in 2016, compared to Pruitt who received 32 percent of threats investigated in 2017.
Pruitt spends a lot of federal money in response to these threats. He has around-the-clock security detail. He’s had biometric locks installed in his office. He’s had his office swept for listening devices—and just in case, he installed a sound-proof booth. Now, these threats apparently mean Pruitt can fly first class whenever he wants. “Due to security reasons, he has a blanket waiver to buy business or first class,” Wilcox told Politico’s Emily Holden on Tuesday evening.
But what are those death threats? How will sitting in first class make Pruitt any safer from them? Who approved his waivers? Wilcox told Holden that reporters will have to file a Freedom on Information Act (FOIA) request for answers to those questions. And if that’s the case, Pruitt will be taking expensive first-class flights for a very long time before taxpayers get the answers.
Earlier this week, the EPA responded to a FOIA I filed in March 2017, which seeks the emails of a former EPA employee who resigned last March. The EPA said the request would be completed, but not until March 2018. Many of my own FOIA requests to the agency filed in early 2017 remain outstanding, and I’m far from the only reporter kept waiting. This is partly because, as any person in the agency’s FOIA office will tell you, they have a mountain of requests. Perhaps if Pruitt’s EPA were more transparent, they would have fewer to deal with.