Media efforts to expand "private jetgate" to EPA come up dry

The press has their teeth into an actual story with questions about Trump administration officials taking private or military jets for business travel when commercial, public flights would be cheaper. Particularly in a White House which made cutting costs and government waste a mantra on the campaign trail, making good on those promises is crucial, even if the amounts of money we’re talking about aren’t massive. When I first wrote about HHS Secretary Tom Price and his adventures in air travel I suggested that he should reimburse the excess costs of those flights. Yesterday we found out that he was going to do just that… sort of.

The Fourth Estate, never happy with a single scandal, has been digging into the travel expenses of the rest of the cabinet. Nothing wrong with that, since everyone should be held to the same standard. But the Washington Post (among others) seems to have hit a sour note when they raised questions about a grand total of four flights taken by EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February, costing taxpayers more than $58,000 to fly him to various parts of the country, according to records provided to a congressional oversight committee and obtained by The Washington Post…

The most expensive of the four trips came in early June, when Pruitt traveled from Andrews Air Force Base to Cincinnati to join President Trump as he pitched a plan to revamp U.S. infrastructure. From there, the administrator and several staff members continued on a military jet to John F. Kennedy airport in New York to catch a flight to Italy for an international meeting of environmental ministers. The cost of that flight was $36,068.50.

It seems odd that they’re fleshing out an entire story as if there’s a scandal here when they go on to provide at least part of the details of those flights and how they came to be. While the question was definitely worth asking, this is more of a story of yelling, “Squirrel!” only to find that there was no squirrel there to begin with.

I spoke with a source at the EPA on background and was able to confirm what led to the four flights the WaPo brought up. The biggest ticket item was the Cincinnati – JFK trip. The President requested the Secretary’s presence at an infrastructure event in Ohio, but there was no commercial flight available which could get them through the second leg of the travel they had already committed to. Immediately following the event, Pruitt and his staff had to make it to JFK in New York for a connecting flight to Italy where he was already scheduled to attend a G7 event. In keeping with the usual protocol, Pruitt’s team requested approval for the military travel from the Office of General Counsel. That approval was given and I have a copy of the approval memorandum. (Click on thumbnail for full size image.)

The second one which attracted media eyeballs was the dreaded charter flight(!) from Denver to Durango, Colorado. This was a scheduled meeting with state officials and landowners affected by the Gold King mine spill. The Secretary and his team had scheduled a normal, commercial flight out of Denver at roughly 9 in the morning which would have gotten them to the meeting on time. They then found out that their flight had been delayed by eight hours and there was no alternate commercial flight available. Once again they requested clearance from the Office of General Counsel to take alternate transportation and approval was given. That memorandum is below. (Again, click on the thumbnail for the full size image.)

The other two trips on non-commercial flights were under similar circumstances. The North Dakota trip referenced by the WaPo was a case where Pruitt’s team was invited by the Governor to accompany him on his own plane for a flight between Fargo and Grand Forks. But the cost of the flight had to be reimbursed owing to federal regulations. The fourth trip (the one in Oklahoma) was taken because travel by car would have tied up the entire team for ten hours round trip. All of this travel was approved in advance.

In short, there’s just no there, there, as the saying goes. Fox News John Roberts picked up some of these details yesterday and went over them in a short report. The video of that is below. Beyond that, this well has gone dry. Again, I don’t fault the media for asking the question because we want everyone in the government to be as lean and efficient with the taxpayers’ purse as possible, but Pruitt obviously followed the rules, so we’re not dealing with another Tom Price situation here.