What does it say about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that he repeatedly flew first class, wasting taxpayer money and creating a new scandal for the Trump administration? It’s initially difficult to understand why Pruitt, an ambitious politician and careful lawyer, would make such a huge unforced error.
But Pruitt’s history suggests it is less of a blunder than the natural outcome of how he has built his political career.
In congressional testimony, Pruitt’s answers are often focused on legalistic posturing, rather than the actual intent of the law. At EPA he sought and received waivers to work on rules he had challenged as a litigant and made decisions that benefitted companies which have contributed money to further his political career. It seems meeting the letter of the law — which he claimed to do — meant it was fine to engage in actions that were an obvious conflict of interest.
So he likely considers it entirely proper to travel in luxury as long as he obtains the proper waiver. It seems unimportant to him whether this is ethical behavior for a public servant, as long as he believes he can argue it is legal.
Pruitt is also deeply ideological, believing government rules hamper the free market. He has rashly canceled a range of Obama-era health safeguards and pollution limits without properly taking public input. However, the courts keep telling him he acted improperly. He seems to believe his views are so important that cutting corners to get his preferred policy outcomes is fine.
If you believe that you are doing such important work, you likely have the tendency to develop a sense of entitlement: that you can’t be bothered with the public (in coach) and that it’s worth the extra money to be able to focus on your surpassingly important mission (in first class).
It is, in short, a deep sense of entitlement — a feeling that the spirit of the rules may be put aside in service of your higher purpose.
More importantly, Pruitt believes his real audience is far narrower than the coach-flying public. Rather, it seems he looks to the CEOs in first class, on whom he has lavished so much attention. His hand-picked efficiency expert even created a video in his former position explicitly saying the “customer” for environmental officials is not the “general public because they benefit from clean air” but businesses. That likely sums up Pruitt’s view of government.
But what Pruitt forgot is that members of Congress live by the opposite set of rules, and are accountable to those same economy class constituents — hence the inquiry into Pruitt’s actions by the GOP controlled House.
Why would such a careful politician not see the danger in a “let them fly coach” attitude? After all, Pruitt is most definitely a political animal. He served in the Oklahoma state House and Senate and as attorney general, lost races for Congress and lieutenant governor, and is widely rumored to want to run for Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) seat.
But almost all of his experience is from Oklahoma — an essentially one-party state, where scrutiny is much lower, especially for someone leading the charge on conservative issues.
Pruitt may have thought that being the tip of the spear in dismantling Obama’s environmental agenda would excuse ethical transgressions. And for a while, it did, as the White House looked the other way at some of Pruitt’s scandals (the EPA’s Office of Inspector General currently has three ongoing investigations into his activities). But Washington, with a lively opposition party and active press corps, is a different place. Wasting public money — especially to sit apart from the average American taxpayers — is a political drag for a White House.
There is also one more, even less flattering, reason for Pruitt air travel indulgences. Pruitt’s chosen career, politics, is not lucrative. But he’s always seemed comfortable grabbing what luxuries his connections could afford. When he was a $38,000 a year state legislator, his friend Albert “Kell” Kelly — who ran a family bank — lent Pruitt money for a fancy house. Kelly also lent him money to become part owner of a minor league baseball team, helping the former college second baseman live out a dream. (Kelly, barred from banking by the FDIC, now works at EPA.)
Pruitt is accustomed to conventions at fancy hotels paid for oil and gas companies who have funded his political rise. It seems likely that someone who had always used his position to add a little style to his life didn’t think it a big deal to get some extra leg room and a free glass of champagne on the taxpayers’ dime.
It’s time for Trump to listen to the bipartisan calls for Pruitt to leave government. The good news for Pruitt is, flying first class is just fine in the private sector.
Keith Gaby is senior communications director (climate, health and political affairs) at Environmental Defense Fund.