Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing increasing scrutiny over the way he is running the agency. The questions regard travel expenses as well as his questionable use of an EPA statute that allows him to hire political appointees, and pay them, at his discretion.
Early last month, Pruitt requested the White House approve significant pay increases for two of his closest aides. Both had accompanied Pruitt to Washington from Oklahoma where Pruitt had served as the state’s attorney general before being nominated for a Trump cabinet post.
One, Sarah Greenwalt, who worked as Pruitt’s general counsel in Oklahoma, became Pruitt’s senior counsel at the EPA. The other, Millan Hupp, was a member of Pruitt’s political staff before becoming the EPA’s scheduling director. Pruitt was asking that Greenwalt’s salary of $107,435 be increased to $164,200. He was asking that Hupp’s salary be increased from $86,460 to $114,590. But because the two women were political appointees, he needed approval from the White House. The White House originally declined the request.
Pruitt, using an obscure provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act, approved the raises himself, however. Less than two weeks after being declined by the White House, the paperwork on the raises had been submitted.
The Safe Drinking Water Act allows the head of the EPA to hire up to thirty people to the agency without approval from the White House or from Congress. The provision was meant to speed up the hiring of experts for custom-made roles within offices that were facing shortages. The maneuvering infuriated EPA staffers. The saw Pruitt as playing favorites.
There have also been questions raised about the expenses Pruitt has tallied on first-class fights during his first year on the job. Records show that Pruitt has spent more than $105,000 on airfare during his tenure ad EPA chief.
Agency Spokesperson say the airfare is a result of security threats Pruitt and his family have received that have caused his security detail to recommend his sitting near the front of planes. The head of Pruitt’s security detail recommended he fly in first or business class after a confrontation with a traveler last year, in which the individual made vulgar remarks to Pruitt.
The EPA has said that agency ethics staff approve the flights “on an individualized basis.”
Scandals over travel expenses have plagued the Trump administration in its first year in office. Last year, it was found that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price had racked up close to $400,000 in expenses for private air travel during his time at the agency. Veterans Affairs Administrator David Shulkin was also found to have misappropriated taxpayer funds for travel for members of his family. Both men were eventually fired.