The head of the Environmental Protection Agency has canceled a scheduled trip to Israel amid scrutiny over his high travel costs.
Documents released last week showed that Administrator Scott Pruitt racked up nearly $200,000 in travel expenses for him and his staff, including some chartered flights and upgraded tickets to first or business class.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said Sunday that the agency decided to postpone a planned trip to Israel, though she did not give a specific reason. The Washington Post reported that Pruitt was scheduled to meet with the country's environmental minister and tour infrastructure sites like a water recycling plant.
“We decided to postpone; the administrator looks forward to going in the future,” Bowman said in a statement.
The EPA said last week that the administrator flies first class for security reasons. Pruitt explained then he had experienced multiple unfriendly encounters while he was traveling in his first few months as administrator.
"There have been instances, unfortunately, during my time as administrator as I've flown and I spent time of interaction that's not been the best and so ingress and egress off the plane, the security aspect, those are decision all made by our detail team, by the chief of staff, by the administration. I don't make any of those decisions," Pruitt told ABC affiliate WMUR in New Hampshire last week.
Pruitt has more security than previous administrators because there have been more threats against him, according to EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox, who said last week Pruitt has a waiver to fly first or business class because of those security concerns.
Multiple other administration officials have been under fire for their high travel spending, most recently Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. A VA Office of Inspector General report Shulkin said inappropriately accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and used agency funds to bring his wife on a European trip. Last year, the president asked then-HHS Secretary Tom Price to resign after criticism of his use of expensive private and military flights.
The documents showing travel costs at EPA were obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental watchdog group, through a FOIA request and lawsuit filed by the group after EPA did not respond to previous FOIA requests.
Those travel vouchers and other documents provide details about some of the administrator's travel. They show that the EPA spent thousands of dollars for the administrator to fly first class on domestic flights. For example, in May of last year, the EPA paid more than $1,900 for Pruitt to fly from Washington, D.C., to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and back for a tour of a chemical company. Pruitt also spent more than $1,500 for a flight from D.C. to New York for media interviews in June, while a staffer that traveled to assist Pruitt on the trip only paid $238 for his ticket.
In yet another example, the EPA got approval for a $5,700 charter flight to take Pruitt and his staff from Denver to Durango, Colorado, because his commercial flight was delayed. Pruitt could have traveled with on the Colorado governor's plane or on a different flight but there were no extra seats available for his security detail, according to a memo approving the trip.
The EPA also spent more than $90,000 for Pruitt and his staff to fly to Italy to attend one day of the G7 environmental summit. The administrator paid about $7,000 for his trip, which took him from New York to Rome and then back to D.C. from Milan. Flights for staffers and other EPA officials on the trip cost around $2,000. That trip also included a $36,000 military flight from Cincinnati to New York, which was approved so Pruitt could join President Donald Trump at an event there and still make his flight to Rome.
Information on the use of some charter flights was first reported in September when the EPA released information on the trips in response to questions from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
The EPA's Office of Inspector General is currently investigating the EPA's travel spending in 2017 to determine if the agency followed all proper rules and procedures in booking private and upgraded flights. That investigation began in August of last year after other documents obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project showed that Pruitt traveled back to his home state of Oklahoma several times in his first few months as administrator.
Members of Congress have questioned whether the EPA is spending too much on the administrator's travel.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., told ABC News' Mary Bruce last week that he thinks all officials should fly coach.
"I think everybody ought to fly coach and I've always felt that way. You get there roughly the same time, maybe a few seconds slower," Kennedy said.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the EPA, criticized the agency for its spending on travel while the administration has proposed cutting the agency's budget.
As our nation's top environmental official spends an undisclosed amount of taxpayer dollars to jet set around the world, the #TrumpBudget guts @EPA's funding by 34% – that's critical funding that would go toward ensuring all Americans have a safe and healthy environment.— Senator Tom Carper (@SenatorCarper) February 12, 2018
Two former ambassadors also criticized the EPA's reasoning for the upgraded flights, saying that they traveled in economy class and without security even when traveling internationally.
I call BS. “He was approached in the airport numerous times”—NOT on plane. So buy an airport club membership for $300/year & wait there. (That’s what I did as ambassador—& I paid.) On plane, he can sit at window, next 2security. There’s no danger AT ALL. https://t.co/arzCfCEvN5— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) February 16, 2018
Ambassadors are routinely recognized and engaged as we board 14 hour flights... in economy with no security. Some Ambs coming from countries hostile to the US. I join your BS call @NormEisen https://t.co/ShF8lhPGeQ— Dana Shell Smith (@AmbDana) February 16, 2018
Chris Lu, who was deputy labor secretary under President Barack Obama, told The Washington Post that no Obama Cabinet members were given waivers to travel first class under the previous administration.