EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s security team decided last year he should fly first class to avoid confrontations with angry individuals on planes and in airports, an agency official said Thursday as EPA sought to explain the chief’s penchant for pricey travel.
“He was approached in the airport numerous times, to the point of profanities being yelled at him and so forth,” Henry Barnet, director of the agency’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, told POLITICO.
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“The team leader felt that he was being placed in a situation where he was unsafe on the flight,” said Barnet, a career employee and longtime law enforcement official who joined EPA in 2011.
EPA offered the explanation after five days of controversy over Pruitt’s travel that started with a Washington Post report that he and EPA staff had racked up more than $90,000 in travel in early June.
His critics include Republican members of Congress who said they routinely ride coach and can’t understand why Pruitt can’t as well. “I would be embarrassed to get on a plane, sit down in first class and have my constituents pass me by and see me in first class,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said Wednesday.
But Barnet said that Pruitt’s travels grew so tense that by May the agent in charge of his security detail recommended he travel in first class when possible. “We felt that based on the recommendation from the team leader, the special agent in charge, that it would be better suited to have him in business or first class, away from close proximity from those individuals who were approaching him and being extremely rude, using profanities and potential for altercations and so forth,” he said.
EPA has previously said it has seen a sharp increase in threats against the administrator since Pruitt took the job last year.
Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who has sought to undo the agency’s biggest Obama-era regulations, is frequently recognized in public, Barnet said — something that rarely happened to his lower-profile predecessors. Sometimes those who recognize him simply tip off reporters to his presence, a time-honored tradition for people who spot Washington VIPs, such as the two individuals who alerted POLITICO this week to Pruitt’s presence in first class on a flight from Washington to Boston.
However, Barnet said Pruitt’s detail has been alarmed at some of the confrontations they have had to defuse while traveling in public.
As an example, Barnet recounted on incident from October at the airport in Atlanta. An individual approached Pruitt with his cell phone recording, yelling at him “‘Scott Pruitt, you’re f—ing up the environment,’ those sort of terms,” Barnet said.
Pruitt told the New Hampshire Union Leader this week that the incidents date back to his earliest travels as administrator.
“We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the [security] detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat,” Pruitt said.
Past EPA leaders have also had their share of encounters with angry people, including protesters who disrupted speeches by Obama-era Administrator Gina McCarthy to object to the agency’s fracking policies and controversies over proposed oil pipelines. (Strangers also sometimes approached McCarthy to thank her for her work, her staffers have recalled.) Former agency staffers have told POLITICO that McCarthy flew coach even on trips to Africa and Asia.
Christine Todd Whitman, an EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, has said she often was unaccompanied by security at public events, such as a trip to Montana where the agency had been involved in “a very controversial site cleanup.”
“[There were] a lot of bitter feelings about EPA,” Whitman told POLITICO in December. “We had a big town meeting up there, and I didn’t have any security then.”
Airlines often work with high-profile travelers to board them separately from the general public, according to security experts, and flying first class also gets them access to secured lounge areas. And while in the air, the first-class area is more tightly controlled than coach.
Pruitt’s security detail now performs a new threat assessment every 90 days “because the threats are so prevalent” to make sure procedures and tactics are up to date, Barnet said.
EPA’s independent Office of Inspector General, which investigates threats against Pruitt, told POLITICO on Thursday that none of the threats it has received have been related to his air travel.
But Barnet said it is difficult to investigate brief confrontations on airplanes or the airport, as the officials rarely know who the people are.
EPA instituted 24/7 protection for Pruitt last year, a step up from previous administrators who typically were guarded only when in public or traveling.
Citing security concerns, EPA does not announce Pruitt’s travel plans ahead of time, a departure from the habits of previous administrators who would often alert the media about upcoming trips, particularly overseas. Barnet said that scheduling announcements are not a decision made by the security detail.
Emily Holden contributed to this report.
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