By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, under fire from lawmakers for travel and security expenses, spent about $45,000 in government money to fly five people to Australia to prepare for a planned trip that was later canceled.
Two of his aides and three security agents flew to Australia last August on business-class tickets costing roughly $9,000 each to set up meetings for the EPA administrator.
The purchase of business-class tickets was not a violation of U.S. government policy, which allows federal employees to travel business class on trips lasting 14 hours or more.
But the spending on a five-person "advance" team for the Australia trip, revealed by U.S. officials who spoke to Reuters, comes as Pruitt faces scrutiny over his own frequent first-class travel and spending on such items as a 24-hour security detail.
The White House budget office has said it is investigating whether a $43,000 soundproof phone booth installed for Pruitt in his office at EPA headquarters violated the law.
The Republican-led House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is looking into Pruitt's travel and security arrangements. Pruitt also has drawn criticism over his rental of a room in a Washington condominium owned by an energy lobbyist's wife.
Democrats have pointed to Pruitt's spending to excoriate President Donald Trump over his campaign pledge to "drain the swamp" in Washington. They contend Trump has done the opposite.
In addition to the three security agents, the team that went to Australia to prepare for Pruitt's trip included his advance director, Millan Hupp, and Kevin Chmielewski, his deputy chief of staff at the time. Chmielewski has since left the agency.
Pruitt was scheduled to participate in environment-related meetings with Australian officials on a visit to Sydney and Canberra.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said Pruitt's trip was canceled because of Hurricane Harvey, which caused major flooding and damage in Texas. Pruitt ended up going to Corpus Christi, Texas to assess the agency's relief efforts instead.
"This is not news," Wilcox said, adding that the advance team was "adhering to the federal government's travel policy."
The trip has not been rescheduled. Wilcox said the original itinerary included a meeting with Australia's parliament and "we have been unable to find a time to reschedule this meeting as it must be done when they are in session."
The officials were away for only a few days, flying from Washington to Sydney on Aug. 26 and returning on Aug. 29. An economy class ticket for the trip would have cost about $1,400.
'BY THE BOOK'
Asked about the EPA officials' Australia trip, a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not address whether the travel was appropriate but said Pruitt's overall spending raised questions and "we expect the EPA to answer them."
Larry Noble, former president of the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws representing government ethics administrators, questioned whether so many staffers were required for the advance team and said Pruitt's credibility on the broader issue of spending taxpayer money was low.
"If he had a reputation for playing it by the book in every other instance, then you might not be concerned," said Noble, senior director and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates government ethics reforms. "But when you see somebody who ... seems to not be that concerned about the way he spends the money, then you question whether this was justified."
Trump has praised Pruitt for doing a "great job" cutting back environmental regulations that the president views as burdensome to businesses.
On Wednesday, 38 Democratic U.S. senators and an independent who votes with them in the 100-seat Senate introduced a resolution urging Pruitt to resign. The Senate is controlled by Pruitt's fellow Republicans, who could defeat the resolution.
More than 130 U.S. lawmakers signed a companion resolution in the House.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Caren Bohan and Will Dunham)