By Charles Stile
USA TODAY Network
April 11, 2018
Christie Todd Whitman knows what it’s like to sit behind the desk in the wood-paneled executive office on the third floor of the Environmental Protection Agency building in Washington, D.C.
And based on her experience as the EPA administrator from 2001-2003, there’s no need for the desk to be replaced with an expensive, bullet-proof model, she said.
Nor does the office need to be retrofitted with a sound-proof security booth — another lavish feature reportedly pursued by Scott Pruitt, the current EPA administrator, whose spending and travel costs are the focus of the one of the more recent Trump administration firestorms.
“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” Whitman, the former New Jersey governor said in an interview with the North Jersey Record and Northjersey.com on Monday. “It’s the Environmental Protection Agency. C’mon!”
Whitman recalled how a sound-proof room on a lower floor offered the EPA officials sufficient privacy to discuss sensitive matters during the anthrax crisis in 2001.
To her, Pruitt is something of a showboat: “He wants to be in the public eye and that’s what he’s getting,” she said.
And Pruitt’s conduct is emblematic of an “extraordinarily ethically tone deaf administration” where lavish trips, accepting gifts and buying expensive furniture — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s $31,000 dining room set comes to mind — are more the norm than the exception. Pruitt is also facing questions over his $50-a-night rental from the wife of a environmental lobbyist.
Whitman said there was no internal administration watchdog warning officials that “you have tripped and gone too far” over the line over what is acceptable spending.
Whitman, a Republican, has never been shy in expressing her revulsion with President Trump — she endorsed Democrat Hilary Clinton for president in October 2016. And she she’s a consistent critic of Pruitt since Trump selected him for the EPA post in December 2017, viewing him a potential dismantler of the agency, not a defender of its tradition.
As the former Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt was close to the gas and oil industry and sued the agency a dozen times. And since taking office, Pruitt has moved quickly to roll back long-held regulations, an effort that may have led his critics to put his spending habits under the microscope.
Pruitt’s security costs
Pruitt has also faced questions for assembling a veritable Praetorian Guard of 19 security agents deployed in 19 vehicles who provide an unprecedented, 24/7 level of protection. He had also sought a special bullet-proof SUV, according to multiple reports.
Whitman says she had none of that. She often walked to work — even after the 9/11 attacks.
She said as many as five security agents could be assigned for overseas travel. But inside the nation’s capital, “I usually did not have security. I had a car and one driver.”
EPA officials defended Pruitt’s push for extra security. Citing the findings of the EPA’s assistant Inspector General, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said Pruitt and his family has faced an “unprecedented amount of death threats.” He added that “Americans should all agree that members of the President’s cabinet should be kept safe from these violent threats.”
Wilcox did not detail how many threats, but Patrick Sullivan, the EPA assistant inspector, told CNN that the number was four times what was leveled against Gina McCarthy, Pruitt’s predecessor in the Obama administration.
Whitman acknowledged that, “I don’t know what kind of threats he’s gotten, so the security personnel may say ‘you gotta do some of this stuff.’ But I doubt that a bulletproof desk is part of it.” (A New York Times report said the desk idea was suggested by Pruitt’s chief of security.)
She also doubted that Pruitt would be a prime target.
“He’s the last person anybody is going to want to take out, frankly,” she said.
Pruitt travel questioned
One expense that has also fueled the furor is Pruitt’s travel. Pruitt cited security reasons to justify flying first class on the government’s tab, racking up nearly $200,000 in travel costs, according to CNN. On one trip to Italy, from June 5-12 of last year, his security detail alone amounted to more than $30,000, the network reported.
Whitman said she didn’t object to traveling first class for international flights — it often made logistical sense to be near the front of the plane to meet dignitaries upon disembarking. But it was the purpose of a Pruitt trip to Morocco that sparked Whitman’s ire. Pruitt made the trip, in part, to pitch the “potential benefit of liquified natural gas imports on Morocco’s economy.”
She said it’s the Department of Energy’s role as a salesman for U.S. market resources, not the EPA.
“It’s not in the EPA’s purview,” she said.
The former governor voiced concerns over reports that John C. Martin, a career security officer at the EPA, was among five officers reassigned or demoted after they expressed concerns about Pruitt’s management of the EPA. Martin had his gun and badge taken away from him, according to a published report.
“He was a good, dedicated public servant,” she said of Martin. “I doubt that he did anything. He’s not the type who would step way out of line. If he brought an issue to the attention of the the administrators (it was) because he honestly felt that the administrator ought to understand that he didn’t think it was appropriate.”
She added, “if you’re in security and you get your badge and gun taken away, that’s not going to do good things for future employment.”