Days after Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, allegedly warned Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt to knock it off with all these goddamn scandals, the Associated Press reports that the full bill for the first year of Pruitt’s unprecedented travel and security expenses are now in the neighborhood of $3 million.
According to the AP report, Pruitt’s full-time, 20 member security detail has run up well over three times the cost of his predecessor Gina McCarthy’s part-time detail. Pruitt’s habit of scheduling pricey private, charter, and military flights—which EPA officials basically justified on the basis of one incident where a dude yelled at him in an airport—has become well known. But the AP also alleges that when taxpayers weren’t paying, he chose to fly coach on his own budget. Per the report, which is sourced to an EPA official who “spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation,” Pruitt bypassed normal procedures to justify the expenses:
Shortly after arriving in Washington, Pruitt demoted the career staff member heading his security detail and replaced him with EPA Senior Special Agent Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, a former Secret Service agent who operates a private security company.
The EPA official knowledgeable about Pruitt’s security spending says Perrotta oversaw a rapid expansion of the EPA chief’s security detail to accommodate guarding him day and night, even on family vacations and when Pruitt was home in Oklahoma.
Perrotta also signed off on new procedures that let Pruitt fly first-class on commercial airliners, with the security chief typically sitting next to him with other security staff farther back in the plane. Pruitt’s premium status gave him and his security chief access to VIP airport lounges.
The AP reported that while the anonymous official conceded Pruitt’s agenda of regulatory rollback and slashing EPA staff have made him more unpopular than previous EPA chiefs, the detail’s schedule was intense enough that many of his guards made “so much overtime that many hit annual salary caps of about $160,000.” (Some of this security was for personal trips to the Rose Bowl and Disneyland.) That’s at the same time that nobody has actually been arrested for threatening Pruitt, the AP added:
A nationwide search of state and federal court records by AP found no case where anyone has been arrested or charged with threatening Pruitt. EPA’s press office did not respond Friday to provide details of any specific threats or arrests.
Moreover, Pruitt allegedly offset some of the costs by accepting airline miles from Ken Wagner, one of his newly hired subordinates at the EPA. Former Office of Federal Ethics director Walter Shaub told the AP that if true, accepting such gifts would constitute a “very serious ethics problem.”
Days ago the New York Times reported at least five officials at the EPA were “reassigned or demoted, or requested new jobs” in the past year after questioning these and other expenses like lavish office furniture. Three current and former EPA staff told the Times that security official Eric Weese ran afoul of Pruitt for unsuccessfully trying to put a stop to his use of motorcade sirens and lights to bypass DC traffic. Weese was allegedly demoted even as Pruitt used the motorcade to go to Le Diplomate, a fancy French restaurant in DC.
Just to top this all off, the AP’s source said that Pruitt’s new security chief Pasquale Perrotta hired personal contacts for a trip to Italy as they “briefly” attended a meeting of G-7 environmental ministers:
Private Italian security guards hired by Perrotta helped arrange an expansive motorcade for Pruitt and his entourage, according to the EPA official with direct knowledge of the trip. The source described the Italian additions as personal friends of Perrotta, who joined Pruitt and his EPA staff for an hours-long dinner at an upscale restaurant.
Other controversies have included Pruitt renting an apartment from an energy lobbyist at below market rates, defying the White House to give staff huge pay raises, and dodging normal congressional review procedures to stack positions at the agency with industry flacks.
All of these questionable expenses are mounting at the same time Pruitt has promised to implement a folksy-sounding “back to basics” agenda at the EPA. Back to basics is apparently slang for rolling back the agency’s regulatory efforts and firing hordes of staff and scientists. This is totally in sync with the White House, which in its last budget proposal sought $2.3 billion in cuts to the agency (including reducing hazardous site cleanup by 45 percent and phasing out environmental justice programs). According to Axios, the Trump administration sought even deeper cuts.
It’s unclear what this means for Pruitt. Myriad reports have variously suggested White House aides are growing frustrated at reports he’s used EPA funds to treat himself to a luxurious lifestyle, or that the president is just fine with it since Pruitt is quickly enacting his agenda. On Friday, CNN reports, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told journalists that the president believes Pruitt had “restored [the EPA] back to its original purpose of protecting the environment”—an obvious lie, but one seemingly calculated to give Pruitt cover.
Unfortunately, most of the candidates to replace Pruitt are at least as bad or worse.