WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency flew to Morocco this week to help encourage the North African kingdom to import liquefied natural gas from the United States, prompting Democrats and advocacy groups to question whether the trip was in keeping with the agency's mission of ensuring clean air and water.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was accompanied by at least four staff members on the trip, which the agency said also included bilateral meetings with government officials about updating an environmental work plan included in the U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement.
The trip cost nearly $40,000, an EPA employee with direct knowledge of Pruitt's travel expenses told The Associated Press. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity, citing concerns of retaliation. That does not include salary and overtime costs for the armed, around-the-clock security detail that accompanies Pruitt wherever he goes.
"We are committed to working closely with countries like Morocco to enhance environmental stewardship around the world," said Pruitt, a Republican.
Pruitt's frequent government-funded travel and other spending are already under review by EPA's inspector general. Pruitt told a congressional oversight committee earlier this month that all of his expenses are all justified, including the nearly $25,000 in public funds spent on a custom-made soundproof booth the administrator uses for making private phone calls from his office.
Rep. Betty McCollum, the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees EPA funding, said she is looking forward to seeing the results of the inspector general's investigation into Pruitt's spending.
"I question whether promoting fossil-fuel sales abroad aligns with the EPA's core mission of protecting human health and the environment," said McCullum, who is from Minnesota.
Pruitt's airfare, accommodations and other costs for the Morocco trip accounted for more than $17,500, nearly half of the total cost, according to AP's source. By comparison, expenses for Pruitt's chief policy adviser, Samantha Dravis, came in at a little over $4,000 for the four-day excursion.
EPA initially declined to confirm whether Pruitt was going to Morocco when AP inquired about the trip Monday, citing security concerns about discussing his upcoming travel. EPA regularly issues media advisories about Pruitt's trips only after they are completed and frequently bars reporters from attending events where he speaks to special interest groups.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox declined to answer questions Wednesday about why Pruitt's expenses outpaced other government employees on the Morocco trip, including whether the administrator flew in first class or other premium seats.
Federal travel guidelines dictate that government employees travel in economy class unless such tickets are not "reasonably available" or if there are exceptional security circumstances. However, past federal audits have found that those rules have been routinely violated by high-ranking government officials under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Travel spending by members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet has been under scrutiny following the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in September following media reports he spent at least $400,000 in taxpayer funds on private jets for himself and his staff.
AP reported last week that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent more than $53,000 on three helicopter trips over the summer, including one that allowed him to return to Washington in time for a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence.
Records show Pruitt has taken at least four flights on non-commercial aircraft, costing more than $58,000. EPA has said all of those flights were necessary and pre-approved by ethics layers.
Pruitt's detailed travel records from his first three months in Washington, the only period released so far, show he also spent about $15,000 on 10 trips that included weekend stopovers in his home state of Oklahoma — a practice that is a focus of the inspector general's review.
Prior to his appointment to lead EPA, Pruitt was known for championing the interests of the oil and gas industry as Oklahoma's attorney general. He rejects the consensus of climate scientists that mankind's continued burning of fossil fuels is the primary driver of climate change. Since coming to Washington, he has repeatedly moved to block or delay Obama-era efforts to curb carbon emissions.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune on Wednesday said the trip was another reason Pruitt should resign.
"The EPA Administrator's job is to protect the health of the public and the environment, but Scott Pruitt instead acts like he is a globe-trotting salesman for the fossil fuel industry who can make taxpayers foot the bill," Brune said.
Follow AP environmental writer Michael Biesecker at http://Twitter.com/mbieseck