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US EPA watchdog finds former chief spent excessively on first-class travel

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US EPA watchdog finds former chief spent excessively on first-class travel

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog said May 16 that the agency should consider recovering $124,000 in "excessive costs" related to former Administrator Scott Pruitt's use of first-class and business-class travel.

The EPA's Office of Inspector General, or OIG, delivered the recommendation as part of an investigation that concluded nearly a year after the Trump appointee, who previously was Oklahoma attorney general, resigned amid a cloud of ethics probes into his spending and management practices. The EPA OIG said it launched the investigation after receiving "numerous congressional requests and hotline complaints" expressing concerns about Pruitt's travel "as well as that of those traveling with him."

In total, the EPA OIG found that Pruitt, his protective service detail and other staff incurred $985,000 in costs for 40 trips taken between March 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2017. Out of those 40 trips, 16 included travel to or had stops in Tulsa, Oklahoma — the location of Pruitt's personal residence — the EPA OIG noted.

After assessing whether the trips were consistent with federal travel regulations, the EPA OIG identified $124,000 in excessive costs related to Pruitt's travel and that of his personal security detail because some of the trips were "granted without sufficient justification and, initially, without appropriate approval authority." That figure represents the difference between flying coach and first class.

The EPA OIG said it also found unjustified use of non-contract air carriers, improper approval of lodging costs above per diem, missing detailed support for Pruitt's stops in Tulsa, improper approval of international business-class travel, and inaccurate and incomplete international trip reports.

The EPA previously justified Pruitt's use of first-class travel in a May 2017 memo in which a staff member wrote that his security detail noticed "at times lashing out from passengers which occurs while the administrator is seated in coach with [his personal security detail] not easily accessible to him due to uncontrolled full flights," according to public records obtained by The Washington Post. "We believe that the continued use of coach seats for the administrator would endanger his life, and therefore respectfully ask that he be placed in either business or first class accommodations," the staff member wrote.

In a May 15 response, the EPA asserted that cost recovery would be "inappropriate" because the agency's Office of General Counsel provided a legal opinion to the EPA OIG that found an appropriate staff member had the necessary authority to grant the first-class travel exceptions at issue. The EPA added that it also recently redelegated authority over travel arrangements and retroactively approved each trip. The EPA also said it found the costs that the EPA OIG attributed to Pruitt's personal security detail "inaccurate."

The 84-page EPA OIG report includes 14 different recommended actions to strengthen the EPA's internal controls over travel, including measures to verify that requirements are met for the use of first- or business-class flights. The EPA OIG said it considered four of the agency's planned corrective actions in response to its recommendations "acceptable" while the other 10 remain "unresolved."