WASHINGTON — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency says he may start flying in coach amid increasing scrutiny of claims that he needs to fly first class because of security concerns.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in an interview with CBS News on Wednesday he had instructed his staff to make changes that could include flying coach.
“What I’ve told them going forward is this: There is a change occurring, you’re going to accommodate the security threats as they exist, you’re going to accommodate those in all ways, alternate ways, up to and including flying coach, and that is what’s going to happen on my very next flight,” Pruitt said. “So those things are happening right away.”
That’s a significant shift since last month, when Pruitt said in interviews that his chief of staff and security team had determined he should fly in premium class seats following some unpleasant interactions with other passengers.
Asked what had changed in the assessment of what was needed to keep Pruitt safe, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox referred back to Pruitt’s CBS interview and declined to provide any additional context or comment.
Since taking office last year, Pruitt has been unusually secretive about his frequent air travel. In a break from his predecessors, Pruitt’s office consistently refuses to provide advance public notice of his trips, typically releasing a schedule of his meetings and appearances only after they have occurred.
Following recent media reports about Pruitt’s pricey airfare, the Republican-led House Oversight committee last week demanded copies of his travel records to be provided by March 6. EPA’s inspector general is also auditing Pruitt’s 2017 travel costs.
Federal regulations allow government travelers to fly business class or first class when no cheaper options are “reasonably available” or if there are exceptional security circumstances. Wilcox told reporters last month that Pruitt had obtained a “blanket waiver” allowing him to take premium flights. Such a blanket waivers are also barred under federal rules, however, and Wilcox later said Pruitt was granted separate waivers by ethics officials for each flight.
EPA has declined to provide any public explanation of its evolving account and has thus far refused to release copies of the waivers allowing Pruitt to fly first class.
The Associated Press is among several organizations that has sought a full accounting of Pruitt’s travel and security expenses under the Freedom of Information Act. Though some records were released following lawsuits filed against the agency, EPA has so far refused to say how much public money has been spent for Pruitt and his staff to travel across the country and on international trips.
The limited records that have been provided show Pruitt’s airfare is often several times more expensive than that of aides booked on the same flights. Often, those trips have included weekend-long layovers in Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma.
Last month, Pruitt said there were some “incidents” on flights that prompted his need for first-class seats. EPA has refused requests from AP to provide any details about those incidents.
Pruitt is the first EPA administrator to require around-the-clock protection from an armed security detail. He has also taken other security precautions, including the addition of a $25,000 soundproof “privacy booth” inside his office to prevent eavesdropping on his phone calls and spending $3,000 to have his office swept for hidden listening devices.