EPA head showed penchant for travel, drivers before DC

Ellen Knickmeyer and Sean Murphy
Associated Press

Oklahoma City – Scott Pruitt’s penchant for travel and concerns about security were notable even before he became head of the Environmental Protection Agency, according to newly obtained records that show that as Oklahoma’s attorney general he frequently traveled out-of-state for appearances before conservative groups and used an office investigator as a driver.

As Oklahoma’s top prosecutor from 2011 to 2016, Pruitt was raising his profile nationally as a conservative in favor of rolling back regulation and federal authority.

Records obtained by the Associated Press show Pruitt traveled extensively as Oklahoma’s attorney general, taking 18 out-of-state trips in 2015 and 2016, for example, including 11 to Washington, D.C. Although some travel expenses were reimbursed by conservative think tanks where Pruitt spoke, records show no sign of reimbursement for several trips involving appearances before them.

Immediately after taking office as attorney general, Pruitt started using a full-time driver who chauffeured him in a large black SUV from his home in Tulsa to the office in Oklahoma City, about 90 miles away.

Pruitt’s daily calendars show the driver – variously shown on the records as “driver” or “agent” – was often an office investigator, a licensed law enforcement officer who typically investigates crimes for the agency.

“It appears he created his own security detail,” said Gary Jones, Oklahoma’s state auditor and a fellow Republican.

As EPA administrator, Pruitt has been under intense scrutiny since it was first revealed last month that he had stayed last year in a bargain-priced Capitol Hill condo tied to a fossil-fuels lobbyist. Multiple investigations have been launched by government watchdogs and congressional committees looking into luxury travel expenses, outsized security spending and massive raises awarded to political appointees.

Lincoln Ferguson, a former spokesman for the attorney general who now serves as a senior adviser to him at the EPA, said if Pruitt’s out-of-state travel was strictly for political purposes, it would have been paid for by campaign funds. But travel records show the trips were arranged through a state-contracted travel agency, and few show any reimbursement was made.

In Oklahoma, Pruitt routinely made the three-hour commute from his home in Tulsa to the state Capitol in Oklahoma City during the working day, according to the calendars.

The entry for Dec. 7, 2015, for example, shows the entry: “8:15 to 9:45, depart Tulsa for OKC” and “3:30-5, depart OKC for Tulsa.”

That was despite Pruitt expanding his office’s Tulsa branch during his time. The AP reported in December 2016 that the move to bigger, pricier offices in Tulsa were part of a 40 percent increase in his office’s expenses as attorney general. Pruitt also added nearly 60 employees to the attorney general’s office.

By contrast, Pruitt’s predecessor, Democrat Drew Edmondson, who held the attorney general post for 16 years, said he typically used a four-door sedan and drove himself to events.

Ferguson, the senior adviser to Pruitt, said “there was no wasted time” on Pruitt’s commutes between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

“He was working, reviewing documents, on the phone,” Ferguson said.

Overall spending on travel by Pruitt’s office averaged about $270,000 a year in his last four years as Oklahoma’s attorney general, up 26 percent from his predecessor’s final year in office. The figures do not include a total for Pruitt’s trips alone. The attorney general’s office spent $201,000 on travel during his predecessor’s last year in the office.

The calendars are heavily redacted and entire days are blacked out.

But the records do show Pruitt frequently traveled to Washington to speak to groups including the Federalist Society; the Club for Growth, a free-enterprise advocacy group; and an anti-abortion rally. He also made similar appearances elsewhere, such as one before the small-government FreedomWorks group in Cleveland on “Battling the Regulatory State.”

“If it’s not state-related, then the state should not be responsible for” the cost, said Jones, the state auditor. “You can’t use any public assets for personal or political reasons.”

Records show many of the trips occurred during the workweek, when Pruitt was drawing a state salary of $132,000. Oklahoma broadly bans first-class tickets for state employees. The travel records show only one first-class flight for Pruitt, with a scrawled note on it showing Pruitt’s campaign paid for it.

Edmondson, who is now running for governor, said his travel expenses as attorney general typically covered national and regional conventions of attorneys general.

“I think you’ll find that his out-of-state travel would far exceed any other attorney general” in Oklahoma, said former Gov. David Walters, a Democrat, who recalled Pruitt speaking before local clubs on topics such as the Obama administration, rather than crime or consumer fraud in Oklahoma.

Conservative groups hosting Pruitt appeared to reimburse most of Pruitt’s flights and some other direct state travel expenses after 2015, and some beforehand.

But on one trip in January 2016, Pruitt billed taxpayers more than $1,000 for a trip to Washington in which he held separate meetings with executives of three conservative think tanks: the APP Foundation, The Federalist Society and Club for Growth. There was no record of reimbursement for that trip. Three weeks later, Pruitt spent the weekend in California for a dinner and a speech to The Federalist Society, which reimbursed the state for his travel.