The news that U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has flown the friendly skies in first class generated buzz on Capitol Hill yesterday, although a key political ally defended the practice as entirely justified.
"I understand that he’s been the subject of a lot of threats and that’s the reason that they have that class differential, and I think he’s entitled to it," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told E&E News.
"And it’s my understanding that all of his trips have been bounced off of ethics first, so he’s clean," Inhofe said. "So I just don’t think he’s doing anything that’s not appropriate."
Democrats predictably pounced on the revelations — confirmed by EPA — that Pruitt is allowed to fly first class because of security risks (E&E Daily, Feb. 14).
"It just seems like he doesn’t pay any attention to the ethics laws in terms of his travel, you know, back and forth," said Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who later in the day asked the agency’s Office of Inspector General to look into Pruitt’s "blanket waiver" that allows the EPA chief to fly first class (E&E News PM, Feb. 14).
"He’s been spending money on all kinds of things that are totally unnecessary," Pallone continued, noting the soundproof booth Pruitt ordered installed at EPA headquarters, which is under review by the Government Accountability Office (Greenwire, Jan. 17).
"He goes first class, he builds his special rooms. He just completely ignores the cost of all of these things and the ethics," said Pallone.
EPA later modified its statement on Pruitt’s blanket waiver, saying rather the administrator receives individual waivers for each first-class trip he takes.
"The [General Services Administration] rule has a provision for security. As such, for every trip Administrator Pruitt submits a waiver to fly in either first or business class," EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said.
The GSA Federal Travel Regulation, which governs executive branch travel paid for by the government, says "blanket authorization" of travel other than in coach is barred and can only be authorized on "an individual trip-by-trip basis" unless the traveler has a disability or special need.
The GSA rule does say "exceptional security circumstances" can allow for agency travelers to fly other than coach. Those circumstances are determined by the agency and can include flying coach endangering the traveler’s life or government property.
Pruitt has defended his use of first-class flights. In an interview with WMUR-TV in New Hampshire on Tuesday, the EPA chief said he has had some negative "instances" while traveling.
"There have been instances, unfortunately, during my time as administrator. As I have flown, I have spent time of interaction that’s not been the best," Pruitt said.
Pruitt said he is not involved in decisions regarding his security, including his travel, which are made by his protective detail and his chief of staff.
"They place me on the plane where they think it’s best from a safety perspective," Pruitt said.
Asked whether he has had "near-confrontations" with other passengers flying coach, Pruitt declined to offer details. "I don’t want to really get into the specs," said the administrator.
"The level of protection is determined by the level of threat," he added. "And that includes the travel, where I stay, how I travel."
Some Republicans questioned how being seated in first class made Pruitt any safer.
"My honest impression was the plane should be equally safe no matter where you’re sitting," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told E&E News.
"I would have to assume, without talking to him, that there’s been a safety assessment to say that it’s better for him to be in the front of the plane. But in my view all seats should be created equal in terms of safety."
Inhofe, a longtime pilot, said he didn’t know what the safety advantages of flying first class are.
"Apparently it’s believed by government that there is," he said. "They operate that way, so there must be something there."
Asked about Pruitt getting a waiver to fly first class, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) brought up former Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who resigned as Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary last year over his use of private jets.
"I always find it interesting when so-called fiscal conservatives make big carve-outs for themselves. Tom Price comes to mind," Connolly said.
"It reminds me of an old saying of a friend of mine, humorist and author Jim Boren, who used to say, ‘If you’re going to be a phony, at least be sincere about it.’"
Reporter Kellie Lunney contributed.