Ex-official accused of pricey travel sought Pruitt meeting

By Maxine Joselow | 06/26/2018 01:15 PM EDT

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt isn’t the first agency official to face scrutiny over pricey travel on the taxpayers’ dime.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

This story was updated Wednesday, June 27 at 5:40 p.m. EDT.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt isn’t the first agency official to face scrutiny over pricey travel on the taxpayers’ dime.

Wayne Nastri, a former Region 9 administrator under President George W. Bush, flew nearly every weekend from his office in San Francisco to his home in Southern California. An audit by EPA’s inspector general found Nastri charged the government improperly.

Wayne Nastri. Photo credit: South Coast Air Quality Management District
Wayne Nastri. | South Coast Air Quality Management District

Last year, Nastri — who has been a lobbyist and is now head of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) in California — tried to get a face-to-face meeting with Pruitt, but attempts did not yield such a get-together.

Gary Hoitsma, who leads the transportation practice for the Carmen Group Inc., was working for the SCAQMD trying to secure the meeting.

But Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, repeatedly declined the request, according to emails recently released to the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act.

In October of last year Hoitsma wrote Jackson, "Any chance to squeeze Wayne Nastri in today for quick meeting?"

Hoitsma added, "We’re flexible anytime. Just let me know."

The meeting request came after media outlets revealed that Pruitt had taken four noncommercial flights, costing taxpayers more than $58,000 (E&E Daily, Sept. 28, 2017).

It also came after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found that EPA hadn’t fully complied with its request for records on the agency’s use of military and private jets (Greenwire, Oct. 19, 2017).

Jackson told Hoitsma, "I can’t do it this trip. Next time."

Hoitsma wasn’t ready to give up. On Nov. 6, he again asked for a meeting.

This request was more detailed. It listed several potential dates and topics of discussion, including the South Coast Air Quality Management District business.

Jackson again rebuffed the request, saying, "Pruitt will be traveling. I can meet with [Nastri] or our new [acting administrator] for air can, but I just don’t see this coming together. I’m sorry about that."

‘Please help me out’

Hoitsma grew frustrated, replying, "Please help me out here. He wants to meet with Pruitt, mostly as a courtesy thing, as a former Republican EPA appointee himself, and now as the head of his agency.

"There [sic] no big ‘ask’ or secret agenda or something. We’ve tried to set it up multiple times since the beginning of the year. He’s trying to be completely flexible on the timing. If there is some other reason for not meeting, you need to tell me."

EPA’s inspector general conducted an audit of Nastri’s travel from 2007 to 2009. It found that Nastri charged taxpayers nearly $4,000 for ineligible travel costs, making 88 trips that he said were work-related in just three years.

In particular, it found that the Region 9 administrator flew almost every weekend to John Wayne Airport, located 11 miles from his home in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

An EPA spokeswoman told The Washington Free Beacon in 2015, "EPA concurs with the conclusions reached in the OIG report and is working with Mr. Nastri on a voluntary repayment schedule to recover $3,823."

While Jackson rebuffed the possibility of a meeting with Nastri, he was happy to arrange a May 2017 phone call between Pruitt and George W. Bush-era EPA boss Stephen Johnson (Climatewire, June 25).

‘Wasn’t too concerned’

Reached yesterday by phone, Nastri said it was unclear why he never got a face-to-face meeting with Pruitt. "I don’t know as far as why — it’s up to the administrator’s office," Nastri said.

"We’d been in discussions with agency personnel, so I wasn’t too concerned," he added, noting that the South Coast Air Quality Management District had previously met with EPA air chief Bill Wehrum.

Asked whether the IG investigation into his travel practices had dampened the prospects of a Pruitt meeting, Nastri said, "I’m not going to respond to hearsay. I have nothing to say to that."

The air quality district later released a statement taking issue with any suggestion that Pruitt’s actions were related to Nastri’s travel issues.

"We have no reason to believe that there is any relevance or connection between Nastri’s travel more than nine years ago and recent attempts to meet with Administrator Pruitt," it said.

The statement also says, "Nastri and members of his executive staff have conducted many productive meetings with senior EPA staff during the past two years on air quality issues of vital interest to the 17 million residents in the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

"Nastri and the SCAQMD look forward to ongoing meetings with EPA officials as we work on the challenging task of meeting federal clean-air standards."

Hoitsma declined to comment, saying, "My emails are self-explanatory."

Jackson didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.