WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the onetime administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was once a potent symbol of corruption within the Trump administration, as well as of its push to roll back environmental protections. With his penchant for first-class flights and other reported excesses — including, most infamously, an ill-fated search for a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel — Pruitt became an increasing problem for a White House that had promised to hold public officials accountable.
Though he defended Pruitt for a time, the president eventually tired of the criticism the former Oklahoma attorney general was attracting, including from conservatives like Laura Ingraham, the Fox News primetime anchor, who called for him to be fired. Trump fired Pruitt just a day after Ingraham’s second call for him to do so.
A subsequent report, issued in the spring of 2019, from the inspector general of the EPA found that “Pruitt and his staff incurred an estimated nearly $124,000 in excessive airfare expenses without sufficient justification to support security concerns requiring the use of first- and business-class travel.”
On Wednesday morning, however, the current EPA administrator, a former coal lobbyist, offered an unexpected defense of Pruitt, faulting his own inspector general for his conclusions.
“There are a number of errors in that report,” Wheeler said in response to a question from Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., adding that the EPA would not seek to recoup any of the $124,000 the inspector general determined Pruitt and his top staffers had improperly spent on first-class travel and security arrangements.
Wheeler said that one of the flaws of the report by the EPA inspector general was that it ignored that Pruitt’s security detail had to fly with him. That means that if Pruitt flew first class, so would his bodyguards. Wheeler thus concluded that the true number of potentially recoverable funds should have been cut in half, to about $60,000.
The inspector general’s office told Yahoo News that it “stands by its report and findings,” according to a statement forwarded by spokeswoman Tia Elbaum. “Our auditors found, among other issues, that funds were spent without sufficient justification on first- and business-class travel for former Administrator Pruitt and his staff.”
Pruitt significantly increased his own security detail, claiming he was the subject of threats. But some of those threats were as seemingly innocuous as a defaced Newsweek cover bearing Pruitt’s visage taped inside an elevator in EPA headquarters. As for needing to fly first class, that decision was apparently precipitated by a passenger telling Pruitt that he was “f***ing up the environment.”
Wheeler on Wednesday said Pruitt was in fact facing a “security risk,” repeating that the inspector general’s report was erroneous. He said that the determination not to recover any funds was made by the agency’s general counsel, Matthew Leopold, a Trump appointee.
“We put new controls into place,” Wheeler added, speaking about potentially improper use of funds by EPA officials.
In his line of questioning, Quigley expressed confusion about why Wheeler didn’t have authority to go after even half — that is, $60,000 — of the funds that had been improperly used by Pruitt. And, Quigley pointed out, if those funds were not, in fact, improperly used, why had Wheeler installed “new controls” against abuse?
“It was approved by several people at the time,” Wheeler said of Pruitt’s travel. Some of those approvals appear to have been made by Nino Perrotta, who resigned from the EPA amid criticism that he enabled Pruitt’s excesses.
“There was no abuse,” Wheeler said, adding several words that were not audible because Quigley cut him off. “There was no misuse of funds,” Wheeler said. “And there will be no misuse of funds.”
“We went above and beyond what the law requires,” Wheeler said.
This did not satisfy Quigley.
“As opposed to going after the money that was already inappropriately used,” he shot back at Wheeler.
The new measures also appear not to have satisfied the EPA inspector general. The statement sent by Elbaum, the spokeswoman for that office, says that “EPA’s internal controls over travel should be strengthened, or abuses may continue to occur at the expense of EPA programs and taxpayers.”
Environmentalists were also dismayed. “Unfortunately, we’re not surprised that the most corrupt EPA administrator in history is having his reputation and his wallet bailed out by his handpicked Number 2, a former coal lobbyist with no business being at the agency to begin with,” said Sierra Club spokesman Adam Beitman.
(Though Pruitt was subject to multiple probes related to his spending while serving as EPA administrator, he never faced any formal charges. Pruitt could not be reached for comment.)
Speaking to Yahoo News after the hearing, Quigley said that it was “not Administrator Wheeler’s role to decide which portions of an inspector general’s report he agrees or disagrees with. The EPA IG determined that former Administrator Pruitt violated the public trust by wasting nearly $124,000. It is the administrator’s responsibility to now make American taxpayers whole, regardless of his personal feelings.”
Wheeler’s criticisms — which came during a budgetary hearing before a House committee — underscore the roles of executive branch inspectors general, who serve as watchdogs of executive branch officials, including high-ranking political appointees.
Inspectors general have investigated a number of Trump officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for taking improper flights, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson for spending lavishly on furniture and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — who, like Pruitt, was dismissed by Trump — for a number of alleged ethical lapses.
Trump recently criticized Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, for his handling of the whistleblower complaint regarding Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25. That whistleblower complaint, which Atkinson determined was of “urgent concern,” became the basis of a lengthy impeachment inquiry, which concluded in Trump’s acquittal earlier this year.
Trump has also criticized the public release of reports produced by John Spoko, the inspector general tasked with investigating the use of funds in Afghanistan.
A spokesperson for the EPA did not respond to questions about what, exactly, was erroneous in the inspector general’s Pruitt report. Instead, the spokesperson forwarded a press release from 2019 that said recovery of funds from Pruitt would be “inappropriate.”
Pruitt appears to have returned to Oklahoma, where he owns a house estimated by Zillow to be worth more than $1.3 million.
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