EPA stresses security concerns amid growing scrutiny of administrator's pricey travel

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The Environmental Protection Agency is stressing concerns about the safety of Administrator Scott Pruitt amid a flurry of new reports on the Trump appointee's first-class flights and travel costs.

"I'm not involved in any of those decisions", Pruitt told the New Hampshire Union Leader during a visit to the state.

"We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment", said Pruitt, who acknowledged he had just flown first-class from Washington to Boston to reach New Hampshire. "We've reached the point where there's not much civility in the marketplace and it's created, you know, it's created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat".

He flies regularly in first and business class while his entourage sits in coach, including for global trips he made to Italy and Morocco past year. He has also taken other measures like adding a soundproof $25,000 "privacy booth", allegedly to stop people from eavesdropping on his private conversations and having his office swept for hidden listening bugs for $3,000.

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, the retired pilot who once landed a damaged Airbus A320 in the Hudson River and who is now an aviation and safety expert at CBS News, had just this to say by email: "First class is not safer than economy".

Pruitt said that he is not responsible for making decisions about his travel accommodations, telling the Union Leader that his chief of staff and security team make the determinations.

"I can not think of anything" that would make sitting upfront safer, said Harro Ranter, chief executive of the Aviation Safety Network.

Pruitt, whose travel habits are under investigation by the agency's inspector general, came under fresh scrutiny this week after a Washington Post story detailed at least $90,000 in travel costs accrued by the EPA during a short stretch in June. Pruitt's ticket cost six times what EPA paid for his aides seated in coach. Pallone initially asked the EPA to look into Pruitt's travel in July, citing reports that Pruitt had spent almost half of his first three months as administrator using taxpayer funds to travel to and from his home state of Oklahoma. That figure does not account for the costs of Pruitt's round-the-clock security detail, which have not been disclosed.

Federal regulations require government employees to "exercise the same care in incurring expenses that a prudent person would exercise if traveling on personal business. and therefore, should consider the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs". However, past federal audits have found that those rules have been routinely violated by high-ranking government officials under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

According to a letter obtained by Politico, the EPA's Office of Inspector General wrote to House Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) to inform him that while he would look into all of Pruitt's travel for 2017, he could not expand the probe to cover travel in the future. Elkins plans to have the report released by the summer. The EPA has said ethics officials approved each of the expenditures.

An EPA spokesman said, "Due to security concerns he has a blanket waiver to fly in first or business class" and that when he travels, the agency follows "the recommendations of security personnel". Pruitt frequently travels to his home state of Oklahoma on the weekends and has been criticized for other costly travel, including non-commercial flights.

Meanwhile, the inspector general's office is conducting probes of Pruitt's travel previous year and the expansion of his security detail, which requires several times the resources of his predecessors.

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