WASHINGTON — An internal watchdog at the Environmental Protection Agency said that Administrator Scott Pruitt demanded and received unprecedented, around-the-clock protection from armed officers on his first day — a detail that appears at odds with past claims that the stepped-up security measures came in direct response to death threats.
EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins said in letters to Democratic senators that Pruitt himself initiated the 24-hour protection, which far exceeds the part-time security afforded to past EPA administrators.
Elkins' letter comes after Pruitt cited an August 2017 report by a staffer in the inspector general's office detailing more than a dozen investigations of threats against him and his Obama administration predecessor as justification for stepped-up security measures, which has included flying first class on commercial airliners.
Elkins said that 2017 summary was requested by Pruitt's office and was not intended to justify tighter security. Marked "For Official Use Only," the internal summary was then improperly made public, Elkins said.
"The (Office of Inspector General) is not a decision maker for EPA," Elkins wrote, adding that Pruitt's staff began pushing for his office to assess threats against Pruitt within days of his arrival in Washington. "The OIG declined and informed EPA management that it is not the role of the OIG to provide a threat assessment, but rather the OIG is limited to the role of investigating and reporting back the facts."
The Associated Press reported last month that Pruitt's preoccupation with his safety came at a steep cost to taxpayers, as his swollen security detail blew through overtime budgets and at times diverted officers away from investigating environmental crimes. Altogether, the agency has spent about $3 million on Pruitt's 20-member full-time security detail, which is more than three times the size of his predecessor's part-time security contingent.
Pruitt has faced a steady trickle of revelations involving pricey trips in first-class seats and unusual security spending, including a $43,000 soundproof booth for making private phone calls. Pruitt is also under fire for substantial raises afforded to two young staffers he brought with him from Oklahoma, where he previously served as a Republican state attorney general.
President Donald Trump said last week he continues to have confidence in Pruitt even as criticism of his EPA chief has increasingly been coming from fellow Republicans.
In testimony before two House subcommittees last month, Pruitt sought to put the blame for any missteps on his subordinates, saying that his security team decided he should fly in first class and that his chief of staff approved the questionable raises.
Pruitt repeated the claim that the extraordinary spending on his personal security was needed because the threats against him have been "unprecedented in terms of quantity and type." He then read aloud a threat posted on Twitter last year by a man who said he planned to shoot Pruitt and who was later determined by investigators to be in India.
On Wednesday, Pruitt is set to testify before a Senate committee where he is likely to face another round of sharp questions about his administration of the federal environmental agency. EPA's inspector general and congressional committees are now conducting about a dozen investigations into actions by Pruitt and his closest aides.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox repeated the assertion Monday that EPA security staff, not Pruitt, made the decision to increase the administrator's security.
"EPA's Protective Service Detail handles security decisions and this particular decision was made before Administrator Pruitt arrived at EPA," Wilcox said.
Pruitt's security chief, Pasquale "Nino" Perrotta, announced his early retirement from EPA earlier this month after questions arose about whether he improperly recommended a business partner for a federal contract and outside work he performed as a private investigator for a tabloid newspaper.
Perrotta is one of five current and former EPA employees who have been called to testify behind closed doors to staff for the Republican-led House oversight committee.
The AP reported last month that demands for increased security are nothing new for Pruitt. State records from Oklahoma show that as attorney general he routinely reassigned investigative agents from his office to work as his drivers and provide personal security. Pruitt's predecessor in the state job drove himself.
Elkins wrote Monday in response to questions from Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. The Democrats said Monday that the new disclosures undercut Pruitt's claims about the reasons for his pricey security enhancements.
"A threat to a federal employee's personal security is extremely serious, but so is using security as pretext for special treatment on the public dime," the senators said in a joint statement. "This letter raises troubling questions about whether Administrator Pruitt told the truth during his testimony before the House. Now more than ever, Mr. Pruitt should come clean about his spending of taxpayer dollars on all manner of extravagances, and our colleagues on both sides of the aisle should demand he do so."