Trump EPA chief endangered public safety by ordering his drivers to speed: Report

Mr Scott Pruitt pressured his federal security officers to drive with sirens and emergency lights on. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Mr Scott Pruitt, while in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration, repeatedly pressured his federal security officers to drive at excessive and sometimes dangerous speeds on routine trips, with sirens and emergency lights on, because he had a habit of running late, according to a federal report released on Thursday (May 26).

The security officers said they knew this was a violation of federal policies and "endangered public safety", the report said.

Among the incidents cited in the report was a 2017 trip in which a special agent drove Mr Pruitt with the lights and sirens going, in the wrong direction into oncoming traffic, to pick up Mr Pruitt's dry cleaning, when he was late for an agency meeting.

"Can you guys use that magic button to get us through traffic?" Mr Pruitt would ask members of his security detail, the report said.

He would say, "Speed it up" or "We need to get there quicker" - orders that the security agents said they found "hard to disobey", even though the lights and sirens were supposed to be used only in emergencies, it said.

Reports about this improper use of lights and sirens first became public in 2018, along with other assertions of wrongdoing by Mr Pruitt, including first-class travel back to his home in Oklahoma on government-paid flights and improper use of government funds to build a US$43,000 (S$58,910) soundproof phone booth inside his office. They ultimately led to his resignation in July 2018.

But until now, an internal EPA report that substantiated the allegations about the abusive use of lights and sirens on his government-issued car had never been made public, even though it was completed a month before Mr Pruitt resigned.

Mr Pruitt, who is now running as a Republican for the United States Senate in Oklahoma and previously served as the state's attorney-general, did not respond to a request for comment.

The report, by the EPA's criminal enforcement division, was released on Thursday as part of a letter the US Office of Special Counsel sent to President Joe Biden summarising findings from several years of investigations by the EPA into allegations raised by four federal government whistleblowers.

Mr Pruitt "engaged in improper and excessive spending of agency funds on travel and security; used his official position for his personal benefit and the personal benefit of certain EPA staffers; and endangered public safety", the letter said, citing the complaints filed by the whistleblowers, who were onetime agency employees.

Mr Henry Kerner, the special counsel, notified Mr Biden that investigations had "substantiated many of the whistleblowers' allegations of wrongdoing by former administrator Pruitt and by EPA".

The EPA's inspector-general issued a report in 2019 confirming that Mr Pruitt had spent nearly US$124,000 on "excessive" travel arrangements, including first-class flights and visits to his home in Oklahoma. The report recommended that the agency try to recover the money, although the EPA said it had no intention of doing so.

The Government Accountability Office had separately concluded in 2018 that the construction of the soundproof booth, which Mr Pruitt intended to use to make secret calls, broke federal law because the spending had not been properly budgeted.

But the formal investigation by the EPA's criminal division into the improper use of lights and sirens on federal government cars - an inquiry that included interviews with at least five EPA special agents as well as Mr Pruitt's deputy chief of staff - had never been released.

Many of the agents told the investigators that they had felt pressured by Mr Pruitt to use the lights and sirens, describing him "as perpetually late and successful in convincing younger agents" to violate agency policy that they be used only in emergencies.

"Just because the administrator makes himself late for an appointment does not constitute us to arbitrarily turn on lights and sirens to get him to his next appointment timely," one agent told investigators.

These demands included racing through a four-block trip to the White House from the agency's headquarters, as well as a trip to Colorado, with one former deputy chief of staff to Mr Pruitt describing the driving with sirens and lights as "overly obnoxious, excessive, and more dangerous to everyone".

Concern about these demands became so intense that one member of the security detail refused to turn on the lights and sirens, and then was removed from his job, the investigators found.

"The administrator (Mr Pruitt) was visibly upset and was silent for an uncomfortable time in the car," the report said, noting that after the officer was moved, the message to the staff was clear.

"If you didn't perform the bidding of the administrator, you would lose your job," the investigative report said, quoting a special agent.

Finally, an agency supervisor told the members of Mr Pruitt's security detail "to disable/unplug the lights and sirens so they wouldn't use them because the administrator will still instruct they be used, but the agent can say they don't work", the report said. The agency now mandates that any violations of the siren policy be reported internally.

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