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EPA watchdog: turns out Scott Pruitt didn’t need 20 security guards

The former administrator’s bloated security detail was unwarranted, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General found.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies about the fiscal year 2018 budget during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 27, 201
Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt didn’t adequately justify his 20-person security detail, according to the inspector general.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Scott Pruitt’s stint as head of the Environmental Protection Agency may have come to a conclusively inelegant end, but his blunders continue to haunt the Trump administration.

Pruitt was forced to resign in July after a flood of alleged ethics breaches became too much for his boss, President Trump, to bear. From Pruitt using his motorcade’s lights and sirens to make dinner reservations to asking his scheduler to help secure a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife, the administrator’s conduct in office left corruption watchdogs scrambling.

By the time he resigned, Pruitt had triggered more than a dozen audits, inquiries, and investigations across the government. Many of the investigations are still underway, and on Tuesday, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General released its report looking at Pruitt’s security detail. Like the investigation into Pruitt’s $43,000 phone booth, this one also concluded that the security detail was overkill and was unwarranted.

You may recall that Pruitt received a full-time security detail with upward of 20 members, an unprecedented ask from an EPA administrator. The team even accompanied Pruitt on personal trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl. (You may also recall his security detail had to break down the door of the condo he rented for $50 a night from a lobbyist’s wife. It turned out Pruitt was napping.)

Keeping 20 burly security workers on hand around the clock wasn’t just unnecessary; it was also very expensive. The inspector general reported that security costs more than doubled from $1.6 million to $3.5 million during Pruitt’s first 11 months in office, and that the threats Pruitt reported did not justify the increase.

Pruitt said he needed bodyguards because he was facing an increased number of threats, from hostile passengers on aircraft to threatening posts on Twitter and Facebook. But the IG found that Pruitt requested a beefed-up security team even before his first day in office.

Protective services detail staffing increased under Scott Pruitt while overall agency staffing decreased.
EPA Office of the Inspector General

The audit, it turns out, began in September 2016, well before Pruitt took over the EPA. It was triggered based on complaints that members of the protective services detail for the prior administrator were not properly reporting their hours.

But due to Pruitt’s increased security demands, the IG expanded the scope of the inquiry to his round-the-clock protection. Prior administrators only received “portal to portal” protection. That means security is present when the official is on the clock and moving from one place to another. Protective details in the past were usually made up of just six agents and didn’t accompany their charge on personal trips.

The EPA also used to have the US Marshals Service provide security, but Pruitt’s detail was made up of agents reassigned from the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division. So the IG probe also looked into whether the EPA had the authority to make this change.

As for the legal justification for pulling in criminal investigators for security duty, the IG reported that the EPA stalled for a year before putting out a legal opinion arguing that the change is permitted. The IG’s office said it doesn’t have a position on this argument, but said that the agency doesn’t have adequate policies in place to make sure the agents are spending their time appropriately among their criminal investigation duties.

The report shows that the EPA’s internal controls are working but that it’s hard to keep up with someone so prolific in his indiscretions as Pruitt. And the scrutiny has led to some changes.

Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s successor, has downgraded his security team to be more in line with those of previous administrators of the EPA. As for Pruitt himself, he’s been keeping a low profile. But there are rumblings about a potential return to politics in Oklahoma, where he served as attorney general before his inglorious tenure at the EPA.