Quigley Questions Wheeler About EPA Failure to Hold Pruitt Accountable
Today, U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (IL-05), a member of the House Committee on Appropriations, questioned Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler during a hearing on the Agency’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget request. Quigley’s questions focused on Wheeler’s failure to follow up on an EPA Inspector General report from 2019 that found that former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt incurred nearly $124,000 in “excessive airfare expenses without sufficient justification to support security concerns requiring the use of first- and business-class travel.” Wheeler has not sought to recover any of that roughly $124,000 from Pruitt and today attempted to defend Pruitt’s behavior.
Following the hearing, Quigley said, “It is not Administrator Wheeler’s role to decide which portions of an Inspector General’s report he agrees or disagrees with. The EPA IG determined that former Administrator Pruitt violated the public trust by wasting nearly $124,000. It is the Administrator’s responsibility to now make American taxpayers whole, regardless of his personal feelings.”
Video of Quigley’s questioning is available here and a transcript is provided below.
QUIGLEY: Mr. Wheeler, my office asked you for a breakdown by program office and spending and FTE for region 5 in the last 5 years. Your congressional relations staff told me that such data is not available. So let me ask Mr. Bloom, can the CFO's generate this data?
BLOOM: We'll look into it and see what information we can provide to you.
QUIGLEY: Well, we asked, this is full time equivalence. Somebody is cutting the checks, right? Somebody's gotta know who's working there and how many folks you've paid in the last 5 years.
BLOOM: Yes, sir. We do collect the FTE information.
WHEELER: You're looking for the FTE information for the last 5 years?
QUIGLEY: For region 5, and by program office.
BLOOM: Yes, sir. We'll go back and pull that information together and provide it to your staff.
QUIGLEY: If you could provide it to the whole committee, we'd certainly appreciate that.
MCCOLLUM: That'd be a good idea, we've requested it as well.
QUIGLEY: Alright, it doesn't seem like there'd be such a mystery.
Mr. Wheeler, your predecessor, the EPA Inspector General report issued last May, nearly a year ago, found that Mr. Pruitt had spent more than 985 thousand dollars on travel in a 10 month period. The IG found a litany of possible ethical violations by Mr. Pruitt and his around the clock security and that actions "are needed to strengthen controls over EPA's travel and prevent fraud, waste, and abuse." They also identified 124 thousand of taxpayer dollars that could be recovered from Mr. Pruitt for his inappropriate travel.
Two questions. The 124 thousand dollars, has it been recovered at this point in time?
WHEELER: No, there were a number of errors in that report. Even though it was broken down to the specific cents, the IG told me at the time that it was a rough estimate. But, they ignored the fact, actually, they attributed half of the costs to the administrator and half the costs to the protective detail, ignoring the fact that the protective detail was required to fly with the administrator and wherever in the airplane he happens to be. So they ignored that part of the law, so that number should be cut in half. They didn't specify what authority we would have to recoup that money, plus the fact that the administrator at the time, there was a security risk that was put in place for his travel. All of this predated me before I joined the agency but there's a number of errors in that report and looking into it, general counsel looked into it, there was no justification for ...
QUIGLEY: Just let me understand, you're thinking the dollar figure may be half that? And you're questioning whether you have the authority to go after any of that money, and who does in any agency where someone spends money inappropriately? If it would've happened again and someone in your agency, does anyone have the authority to go after money inappropriately spent.
WHEELER: Our office of CFO reviewed every questioned expense and recommended that no amount should be recovered from the former administrator. EPA has already taken immediate steps to implement corrective actions. We have implemented controls above and beyond what is required by the federal travel regulations. For example, any trip taken by an administrator, that is over 5 thousand dollars, must be reviewed and approved by the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Financial Officer, or the Administrator's Chief of Staff. So we put new controls into place but the dollar amount that the IG identified was not justified in the report.
QUIGLEY: Okay, let's say its half that, let's say it's quarter of that, do you have the authority to go after it? If not, does that mean someone can cheat the United States out of dollars and all you can do is tell Congress, we don't have the authority to go after it the numbers may be a little high?
WHEELER: The Inspector General erred in the report as far as whether or not he was justified in taking first class travel. So, it was approved by several people at the time, including the security detail, who approved the need for him to travel first class, so there was no abuse of ..
QUIGLEY: And I apologize, just given the short time frame, if nothing was wrong about all of this, why did you have to put corrective action in place?
WHEELER: We took further corrective action in place above and beyond what is required, just to assure the American public that there is no misuse of funds and there will be no misuse of funds. We went above and beyond what the law requires.
QUIGLEY: As opposed to going after the money that was already inappropriately used. I thank the Chair for her indulgence, thank you so much.
WHEELER: There was no justifiable finding that it was misused, because it was approved at the time the travel was taken.