Costs for U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s personal security detail during his first months in office have been close to double those for his predecessors during the Obama administration.
Documents obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act show EPA has spent substantially more on Pruitt’s security detail during roughly his first three months as EPA chief than past administrators Lisa Jackson and Gina McCarthy during comparable time periods.
Overall, EPA spent $832,735.40 on Pruitt’s protection detail for about his first quarter running the agency — nearly double what was spent on security for Jackson and McCarthy.
Jackson’s personal security ran up payroll and travel expenses of $423,490.62 during her early months running EPA in 2009.
McCarthy’s protective detail had compensation and trip costs of $465,165.04 for her first months in charge of EPA in 2013.
Amy Graham, an EPA spokeswoman, said decisions about Pruitt’s security are made by his detail.
"Security is something to be taken very seriously. We leave decisions about how to best protect the administrator up to the experts in charge of his security detail," Graham told E&E News.
Pruitt’s security costs spiked higher than his predecessors’ after EPA looked to increase his protective detail. Internal budget documents and emails show the agency has asked for around-the-clock security for Pruitt, which is a significant uptick in protection for an EPA administrator.
In an internal email sent shortly before Pruitt’s Senate confirmation in February, the administrator had requested tighter security. Henry Barnet, director of EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training (OCEFT), said in the email, "Based on conversations with the transition team, we anticipate that Mr. Pruitt will initially request a 24/7 detail" (Greenwire, Feb. 20).
In addition, an EPA budget document showed the agency was planning for a security boost. The agency was looking to add 10 full-time employees "to provide 24/7 security detail for the Administrator."
Another agency budget memo showed EPA had set aside $800,000 in carryover funds from fiscal 2017 to help pay for travel by Pruitt’s protective detail.
EPA’s increased security spending for the administrator comes amid proposed deep budget cuts by President Trump for the agency, including for its enforcement office. Under Trump’s fiscal 2018 plan, funding for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance would see an almost 24 percent cut, reducing it to $419 million.
EPA’s Protective Service Detail guards the administrator and is part of the larger OCEFT at the agency. The detail can call upon special agents from elsewhere in EPA’s enforcement office when needed to protect the agency’s top official.
It’s not clear how many agents are protecting Pruitt.
In response to E&E News’ FOIA requests, information indicating the number of agents protecting Pruitt — and, before him, Jackson and McCarthy — was redacted. EPA blacked out the information in the records in order to not disclose investigators’ techniques and procedures as well as law enforcement information that, if shared, could endanger lives.
Agents now on ‘baby-sitting duties’
Former EPA special agents worry that increased security for Pruitt could stretch an already strapped contingent of enforcement officers at the agency.
"That detail is too small to provide that kind of protection, so he would need more people," said Michael Hubbard, a former special agent in charge of the EPA Region 1 office in Boston.
"When you go to 24/7, you don’t have the agents in Washington to do that. So then you start having to pull agents from the 10 regions around the country to backfill that."
Hubbard, who retired from EPA in 2013 after 20 years with the agency, said agents now called in to help with the security detail will be taken away from casework on environmental crimes.
"These guys are responsible for complex, criminal environmental cases to protect human health, and they are now doing baby-sitting duties. That’s not what they signed up for," Hubbard said.
Former EPA special agents tell E&E News that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, security was heightened for Cabinet-level officials, including the agency administrator. Still, the EPA chief was given door-to-door, or "portal-to-portal," security, not an around-the-clock detail.
"They pick them up from their home and drive them to work, be on duty at the office for local travel during the day, and then that shift would end," said David McLeod, who was EPA special agent in charge of the agency’s Region 3 branch in Philadelphia.
"Another shift would come on and take care of the administrator for afternoon meetings and then drive them home, drop them off, and that would be it."
McLeod, who retired from EPA in 2016 after 22 years at the agency, said EPA would likely have to add more shifts to provide 24/7 security for Pruitt.
"Now, I’m not sure how many shifts they’re running. It could be three or four. When they were doing ‘portal-to-portal,’ it was two shifts," McLeod said.
Heightened protection could lead to greater costs at EPA, including paying for overtime as well as travel and lodging to maintain the security detail during the administrator’s trips.
"That would be more expensive because you would have to account for agents working the midnight shift," said Fred Burnside, who led EPA’s criminal enforcement office from 2008 to 2010. "A good additional bit of the money would be working the midnight shift as well as through the weekends, too."
McLeod likewise noted, "In addition, being in the convoy from Point A to Point B, they might have to be spending the night while the administrator is traveling.
"They’re incurring additional overtime and travel expenses," McLeod said.
McCarthy would often return to her native Boston and have security with her. Pruitt is traveling back to Oklahoma, likely with protection in tow, with scheduled weekend flights to Tulsa on his calendar for his first weeks in office.
Political officials have increasingly come under threat in recent years.
Last month, a shooter targeted Republican lawmakers during their morning baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. The shooter was eventually taken down and killed by police, but several people were injured in the attack, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who is still recovering from his wounds.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving has said law enforcement is contending with more threats to members of Congress. In a letter to the Federal Election Commission requesting guidance on lawmakers using campaign funds for home security, Irving said there are already more threats under investigation this year than all of the last year.
"This year alone (from January 1 of 2017 to date), the [U.S. Capitol Police] have investigated approximately 950 threatening communication messages aimed at Members because of their profile as elected representatives or Members of Congress," Irving said.
"This number has surpassed the approximately 902 threatening communications that the USCP investigated in calendar year 2016 and constitutes the new daily threat environment faced by Member[s] of Congress."
EPA administrators have been targeted, too, in the past.
The FBI investigated a death threat directed at Russell Train, EPA’s second chief, who led the agency from 1973 to 1977. Records obtained by E&E News under FOIA showed the bureau probed material mailed to Train, including a certificate titled "Bullets for Bureaucrats," which led to increased security around the administrator’s office (Greenwire, Jan. 30, 2015).
It’s not known whether Pruitt is receiving similar threats, but he has become a high-profile and controversial member of Trump’s Cabinet.
The EPA administrator is often greeted with protests wherever he goes. Pruitt has led the charge to roll back several Obama-era environmental rules as well as have the United States withdraw from the Paris climate change accord.
Ex-EPA enforcement officers said protecting the administrator is needed but questioned the costs of ramped-up security.
"If there is threat intelligence, that justifies increased protection," McLeod said. "It’s a valid mission. You got to do it."
But the former EPA special agent added that the agency is still falling short of having 200 law enforcement agents on board as required by law.
Other observers have made similar points about boosted protection for the administrator, including the Environmental Integrity Project. The green group filed a complaint with EPA’s Office of Inspector General asking whether increased security spending for Pruitt was "a wasteful use of taxpayer funds" (E&E News PM, May 11).
Burnside, the former head of EPA’s criminal enforcement office, said he wants to know why EPA feels it needs to provide around-the-clock protection for the agency chief.
"As a taxpayer, I would want to know if there was some type of information that led you to believe you needed 24-hour security," Burnside said.
Click here to read EPA’s documents on compensation and travel costs for administrators’ security details.
Reporter Mike Soraghan contributed.