In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP

Excuse for EPA chief’s first-class flights turns farcical

Updated

As if Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt weren’t facing enough controversies, we learned this week that the Oklahoma Republican has spent quite a bit of taxpayer money on first-class air travel. Donald Trump’s EPA chief responded by saying he’d “had some incidents” that made the expensive plane tickets necessary.

This was, however, an odd response. Why would “incidents” be more common in coach?

Yesterday, as the Washington Post  reported, the EPA elaborated on the nature of Pruitt’s travel habits.

Verbal confrontations with members of the public prompted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to switch to flying first or business class whenever possible, officials said Thursday.

Henry Barnet, who directs EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training, said in an interview that the head of Pruitt’s security detail, Pasquale Perrotta, recommended in May that he fly in either first or business class to provide “a buffer” between him and the public.

It’s generally not a good sign when public servants, traveling at taxpayers’ expense, look to create “a buffer” between them and the Americans they ostensibly serve. (One wonders whether Pruitt might be better off if he also considered creating a buffer between his office and lobbyists for polluters.)

But even putting that aside, what kind of “confrontations” are we talking about here? According to Politico, at an airport in Atlanta, someone approached Pruitt with his cell phone recording, yelling at him, “Scott Pruitt, you’re f—ing up the environment.”

And while I’m sure that was unpleasant, Pruitt and his team still seem to be missing the underlying point. Putting aside whether the Trump’s EPA chief is, in fact, “f—ing up the environment,” what’s to stop a first-class traveler from saying the same thing to Pruitt? Or someone in coach saying it to Pruitt on the way toward the back of the plane?

Is the idea that Pruitt, sensitive as he appears to be, needs us to pay for more expensive plane tickets because he’s less likely to find angry people if he sits with those who can afford first-class tickets?

Making matters slightly worse, the EPA hasn’t exactly kept its story straight when answering questions about this controversy. Politico also reported yesterday:

EPA on Wednesday retracted its claim that Administrator Scott Pruitt has received a “blanket waiver” to fly first class whenever he travels, after POLITICO pointed officials to federal travel rules that appeared to bar such arrangements.

Pruitt has been routinely flying first class at taxpayers’ expense after securing what EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox had described as “blanket waiver,” POLITICO reported Tuesday. But the General Services Administration says federal rules require agencies’ oversight staffers to sign off on officials’ first- or business-class travel “on a trip-by-trip basis … unless the traveler has an up-to-date documented disability or special need.”

Wilcox changed his explanation after POLITICO pointed out that section of the regulations. GSA does allow first-class travel for security reasons, but only if agencies request a waiver for each trip.

Oh. So, according to the EPA, Pruitt had a “blanket waiver” to take more expensive flights at taxpayer expense. Told that such a policy would be illegal, the EPA effectively said, “Never mind what we said yesterday.”

All is not well at Donald Trump’s EPA.

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