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Watchdog finds US EPA failed to justify Pruitt's inflated security costs

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Watchdog finds US EPA failed to justify Pruitt's inflated security costs

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog has found that the agency failed to justify a major spike in security costs related to former Administrator Scott Pruitt's round-the-clock protective detail.

The agency had "no final, approved standard operating procedures that address the level of protection required for the administrator" when it allowed security detail costs to increase from $1.6 million to $3.5 million in just 11 months, according to a Sept. 4 report by the EPA's Office of Inspector General, or OIG.

"The failure to have effective and current standard operating procedures can result in the organization having unclear lines of authority, inconsistent practices, inappropriate or inadequate staffing, and excessive or unnecessary costs," the EPA OIG said.

The watchdog said it opened an investigation into Pruitt's use of a protective detail after receiving a hotline complaint alleging timekeeping irregularities and potential salary cap violations by members of his security team. The Associated Press also reported on April 7 that members of Pruitt's expanded security team accompanied him on personal trips to college sports events and family vacations.

But Pruitt told federal lawmakers during an April 26 hearing that all the questions being raised about his activities and need for extra security were politically motivated and that he "had nothing to hide." The embattled administrator eventually resigned on July 5 amid a cloud of ethics probes, many of which are ongoing.

As for Pruitt's security needs, the OIG reported that he had 19 agents providing "24-hour/7-days-a-week protection" until he stepped down. Of those agents, 10 were full-time and nine were part-time. In comparison, Gina McCarthy, who served as EPA administrator during the Obama administration, received "door-to-door" protection from six full-time agents as of October 2016, meaning she only used a security detail when commuting from home to work and back.

The EPA had claimed Pruitt needed constant protection because he faced unprecedented threats from opponents of the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda. But the OIG faulted the agency for failing to conduct a proper threat analysis before determining before Pruitt's arrival that he would need 24/7 protection.

The EPA pushed back on that assessment in a statement the same day. In doing so, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud cited the June 2017 attack on the Republican congressional baseball team and the January 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

"Because persons intending harm often do not make threats, EPA believes ... that a threat analysis cannot be the sole source of information used to determine if protective services are provided or the level of protection," Abboud said in an email. "Accordingly, there is no support for the OIG’s insinuation that expenditures for protective services carried out before a threat analysis was conducted were not justified.”

On another issue, the report noted that only the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of State have statutory authority to protect executive branch officials. However, many agencies have their protective personnel deputized by the U.S. Marshals Service to perform the same service.

Here, the EPA OIG said it could not initially determine whether Pruitt's security detail had the same authority as law enforcement officials to provide protective services for the EPA administrator. But in response to its inquiries and repeated requests, the EPA Office of General Counsel in late June detailed the legal basis for Pruitt's protective service detail's law enforcement authority.

The report made 12 recommendations in all, including that the agency perform a threat analysis on a regular basis to identify the proper level of protection required for the administrator. It also urged the agency to create a comprehensive set of standard operating procedures for all protective service detail operations.

The agency has already taken or agreed to take corrective actions for four of the 12 recommendations, according to the report. Abboud said they include agreeing to conduct a regular threat analysis and review internal controls to prevent employees from exceeding pay caps. Eight of the report's recommendations remain unresolved, the EPA OIG said.

On July 13, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler requested that round-the-clock protection be eliminated and replaced with door-to-door protection, according to the report.