Newly-released documents show that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's first-class flights were prompted by what his security chief called life-endangering "lashing out" from other passengers when he flew coach, but the agency has not completed investigations into any of those incidents.
Lawmakers have questioned the security concerns cited as justification for increased spending on Pruitt’s security detail and first-class travel. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox has previously said that Pruitt had a “blanket waiver” to fly first-class but later said that because of the security concerns Pruitt received a waiver to fly an upgraded class for every trip.
A memo to the agency’s travel coordinator requesting that Pruitt be seated in first or business class, obtained by the Washington Post and other news organizations through the Freedom of Information Act, shows that Pruitt’s security detail wanted him to be seated in an upgrade class due to “lashing out from passengers” on full flights where his security wasn’t easily accessible to him.
“We believe that the continued use of coach seats for the Administrator would endanger his life and respectfully ask that he be placed in either business or first class accommodations,” then-acting security chief Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta wrote in the memo.
The memo does not detail any specific incident in which Pruitt was said to be in danger or what exactly is meant by "lashing out."
A former EPA enforcement official Mike Hubbard said it is "disingenuous and patently absurd" to suggest that someone's life is in danger because of other passengers' comments and that the memo does not provide any rationale for the additional expense of flying first class.
Perrotta said in an interview with a conservative news outlet this week that various incidents with social media and other examples of threats, including what he called "very graphic" messages on Pruitt family's phones, were enough to show that threats against Pruitt were an issue. He did not specifically address security incidents related to Pruitt's travel.
"Those particular examples you don't need many of them to realize that there are people out there that want to cause harm," he said in the interview. "And what's important for everyone to know is that security is not there to prevent from an incident to occur, security is there to plan ahead hoping that they can defuse, deflate, or address potential issues."
Perrotta retired from the agency this month and recently met with congressional investigators.
Federal regulations say that officials should use the least expensive option when they travel, but there is an exception allowing first-class for security reasons.
None of the investigative reports released by the agency in response to a separate FOIA request shows that these cases were referred and investigated further to determine if the “lashing out” was a serious threat, according to documents released to ABC News and other news organizations from the agency’s internal investigative office.
The EPA has not responded to questions about whether any of the incidents involving Pruitt's travel were investigated.
Pruitt said in March that because of concerns about the cost of his first class travel he has asked his staff to book him on more flights in coach. He previously said in interviews that there were some incidents between him and other travelers that were "not the best."
Reports from the investigative branch of the EPA inspector general show that the agency recorded 16 threats against Scott Pruitt as of August 2017, more than four times the number of threats against former administrator Gina McCarthy in the previous fiscal year.
Most of the investigations determined there was “no overt threat” against Pruitt or took no further action. At least two investigations are still pending but the inspector general's office said it does not comment on pending investigations and so could not confirm if any were related to Pruitt's travel. An email dated January 2018 said that there were six investigations into threats against Pruitt in the 2018 fiscal year.
Some of the threats reported to the office contained vulgar language, calling Pruitt “evil” or in one case a phone caller saying they hoped a family member would die. In several of the cases investigators contacted the source of that language and determined that there was no immediate threat to Pruitt. Other complaints were closed and no action was taken, though the specific findings were redacted.
In multiple cases, the investigators presented information to the Justice Department but U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute.
The office also looked into a complaint about a printout of the cover of Newsweek magazine where someone had drawn a mustache on Pruitt’s face. Investigators determined the printout was not a threat.