Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and his staff spent an estimated $124,000 more than necessary on first-class flights "without sufficient justification to support security concerns" used to support the spending, according to a report from the EPA's internal watchdog released on Thursday.
The report recommends the agency look into forcing that money be paid back but EPA's response said that would be "inappropriate" because the upgraded travel was approved by agency staff.
The inspector general's report is the result of an audit that began in August 2017 and was expanded to look at whether all of Pruitt's travel that followed proper procedures after outcry from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and calls to the office's hotline. Investigators looked at 40 trips totaling around $985,000 from March to December 2017 and found EPA employees did not always justify spending more on flights, improperly booked first or business class flights for Pruitt's security detail, and approved lodging that was above the government limit without justification.
Pruitt and his security detail flied first or business class on multiple flights, saying it was safer for Pruitt since he had received threats.
But the investigators said EPA couldn't support this claim, saying "at no time has the agency ever adequately justified its approval of the exception based on security concerns. The agency could not provide documentation to support that the former Administrator's life was endangered when flying coach class."
The agency pushed back on that in it's response to the report, saying the additional costs were justified under federal law that authorizes upgraded flights when necessary for security reasons.
"Based upon the provided justification from [protective service detail], there is no legal justification to recover any additional costs incurred," the agency wrote in it's response.
Deputy Inspector General Charles Sheehan said EPA's travel program has been a problem and could continue to cost taxpayers money is the agency doesn't impose more controls on spending.
"The EPA's management of its travel program has been a persistent area of concern for the Office of Inspector General," Sheehan said in a press release. "In this most recent report, the OIG found, among other lapses, that funds were spent without sufficient justification on first- and business-class travel for former Administrator Pruitt and his staff."
The inspector general's office recommended EPA look into whether Pruitt or other staff should have to pay back the increased costs to the agency from his travel.
But EPA defended the spending in a statement, saying the trips were approved by agency officials and have been retroactively approved per the inspector general's recommendation.
"EPA believes that the trips were authorized by the appropriate official, making cost recovery inappropriate," the agency said in a press release.
Democratic Sens. Tom Carper and Sheldon Whitehouse, who were both vocal critics of Pruitt's behavior, urged current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to recover the funds and make changes at the agency to prevent similar problems.
"Resigning in disgrace shouldn't let you off the hook for unprecedented unethical behavior, and the latest report released by the OIG today confirms that. We appreciate the EPA OIG continuing to investigate these abuses after former Administrator Pruitt has fled the agency, but now it is up to the current Administrator to ensure that we never see behavior like this at EPA again," they said in a statement.
Pruitt's tenure at the Environmental Protection Agency was plagued by controversy around his behavior as administrator, including first-class travel and a temporary living arrangement in a condo owned by a Washington lobbyist.
The report found Pruitt's use of military and chartered flights was justified and followed the necessary requirements. In one case, the White House requested Pruitt take a military jet from an event with President Donald Trump in Cincinnati to New York in order to make a flight to Rome, costing about $36,000.
During part of his time at EPA, Pruitt traveled first class on domestic and international trips, which he said was recommended by his security team. But Democrats said their investigations and whistleblower testimony found Pruitt pressured his team to exaggerate threats against him to justify the travel and 24/7 security detail.
The EPA inspector general opened multiple probes into Pruitt's conduct but some were inconclusive after he resigned from his position.
Pruitt resigned last summer, saying the intense scrutiny had become a distraction for the agency. Current EPA chief Andrew Wheeler took over in the interim and was confirmed as full administrator in February.
EPA improperly spent an extra $140,000 on travel under Scott Pruitt: Report
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