A new report from a watchdog group found that Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt spent $12,ooo of taxpayer money traveling home this spring, but hasn’t visited his regional offices yet.
The Environmental Integrity Project looked into Pruitt’s travels after EPA employees had trouble scheduling meetings with the administrator due to his frequent travel, The New York Times reported on Monday.
The non-profit group’s report, which examined Pruitt’s travel documents and vouchers, found that he spent 43 out of 92 days from March through May either in Oklahoma, or traveling to or from it. Pruitt traveled to his home state, where his family still lives, a total of 10 times in those three months.
The report didn’t suggest that his travel or airfare, paid for with taxpayer money, was improper. It also couldn’t confirm whether Pruitt’s full-time security detail traveled with him, because the documents only listed the administrator’s expenses.
Pruitt’s travel schedule raised questions from the watchdog group because of the duration he spends at home on visits, versus what he has listed on his official travel documents. According to the group’s analysis, Pruitt often spends three to five days at home, but lists only a single official meeting.
For example, on a five-day trip in May, Pruitt visited Colorado for a Heritage Foundation event from May 11 to 12, where the conservative think tank paid for his lodging, then he spent the remainder of the trip in Oklahoma. But the travel documents that the Environmental Integrity Project reviewed listed no explanation for the Oklahoma leg of the trip, despite the $2,904 airfare bill.
“He needs to say why spending half his time in Oklahoma and having one meeting per trip is performing his duties as an administrator,” Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of the EPA’s office of civil enforcement, told The Times.
An EPA spokesperson also told The Times that Pruitt’s travel was all on official business, and “all serves the purpose of hearing from hard-working Americans about how EPA can better serve the American people.”
No regional office visits
Six months into his tenure, Pruitt has yet to visit any regional offices (or if he has, the EPA hasn’t released any statements announcing he did so).
It is unusual for EPA administrators to go so long into their tenure without visiting their regional offices, former EPA employees told Business Insider. Most administrators, regardless of their political affiliation, do a courtesy visit to the agency’s 10 regional offices to meet their employees directly upon joining the agency, according to former staff.
“It’s typical when there’s a new administrator, [they] will do a courtesy visit to all 10 regional offices,” Jovita Pajarillo, former assistant director of EPA’s Region Nine’s Water Division in San Francisco, told Business Insider in April. Pajarillo said the administrator who impressed her the most was Christine Todd Whitman, who worked under Republican President George W. Bush.
“She had the most gracious staff and she wanted to really have a photo-op with elementary students and talk about the environment,” Pajarillo said. “It’s a standard protocol that a new administrators will do.”
Pruitt stopped 45 minutes away from the Chicago regional office at the USS Lead Superfund Site to speak with local residents in April, but neglected to visit the office itself, even though staff there invited him to visit.
Rumors have swirled that Pruitt is planning on closing or consolidating regional offices, a move that current and former staffers warn could stretch the EPA’s resources thinner than they already are, and prevent those branches from serving states’ individual environmental needs.
Staffers worry that Pruitt not visiting could be a sign that he is taking consolidation ideas seriously. Chris Sproul, a former EPA assistant regional counsel who served under four presidential administrations, told Business Insider that he thought the lack of visits was emblematic that Pruitt — who sued the EPA 14 times when he was attorney general of Oklahoma — was “brought in to destroy the agency.”
“He views the agency not merely as, ‘Well there are going to be some difficulties here because we probably don’t see eye to eye’,” Sproul said. “It’s like, ‘These people are — the people that I am in charge of — are the enemy.’ Why would I come tell them what I want to do? That would only arm them for fighting me.”