OKLAHOMA CITY – As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Scott Pruitt assigned investigations agents from his office to be his driver and bodyguard, at times taking them on his frequent trips out of state to speak to conservative political organizations, state records show.
The newly obtained documents raise similar questions to those that have triggered investigations into Pruitt’s security and travel since becoming administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Pruitt was Oklahoma’s top prosecutor from 2011 to 2016, at a time in which he was raising his profile nationally as a conservative in favour of rolling back regulation and federal authority.
Pruitt travelled extensively as attorney general, taking at least 24 out-of-state trips in 2015 and 2016, including 11 to Washington, D.C., according to the records. Although some travel expenses were reimbursed by conservative think tanks where Pruitt spoke, records show no sign of reimbursement for several trips involving appearances before them.
The trips included a handful in which the only scheduled events were appearances at political gatherings and media interviews, such as a 2016 trip on April 4 and 5 to speak to a Columbia Law School branch of the Federalist Society, an influential legal group in conservative political circles. One of the state’s reassigned investigations agents travelled with him, as “all-day agent,” according to his official daily calendars, which the Associated Press obtained through open-records requests.
For a few out-of-state trips on his official daily calendar, the reasons, destinations, appointments and all other details were blacked out completely, with only the changing time zones and trip home from the airport signifying the travel.
Pruitt began using a full-time driver soon after becoming attorney general. He was chauffeured in a large black SUV from his home in Tulsa to the office in Oklahoma City, about 90 miles (145 kilometres) away.
Pruitt’s daily calendars show the driver — variously shown on the records as “driver” or “all-day agent” — was often an office investigator, a licensed law enforcement officer who typically investigates crimes for the agency.
“It appears he created his own security detail,” said Gary Jones, Oklahoma’s state auditor and a fellow Republican.
As EPA administrator, Pruitt has been under intense scrutiny since it was first revealed last month that he had stayed last year in a bargain-priced Capitol Hill condo tied to a fossil-fuels lobbyist. Multiple investigations have been launched by government watchdogs and congressional committees looking into luxury travel expenses, outsized security spending and massive raises awarded to political appointees.
Lincoln Ferguson, a former spokesman for the attorney general who now serves as a senior adviser to him at the EPA, said if Pruitt’s out-of-state travel was strictly for political purposes, it would have been paid for by campaign funds. But travel records show the trips were arranged through a state-contracted travel agency, and few show any reimbursement was made.
In Oklahoma, Pruitt routinely made the three-hour commute from his home in Tulsa to the state capitol in Oklahoma City during the working day, according to the calendars.
The entry for Dec. 7, 2015, for example, shows the entry: “8:15 to 9:45, depart Tulsa for OKC” and “3:30-5, depart OKC for Tulsa.”
That was despite Pruitt expanding his office’s Tulsa branch during his time. The AP reported in December 2016 that the move to bigger, pricier offices in Tulsa were part of a 40 per cent increase in his office’s expenses as attorney general. Pruitt also added nearly 60 employees to the attorney general’s office.
By contrast, Pruitt’s predecessor, Democrat Drew Edmondson, who held the attorney general post for 16 years, said he typically used a four-door sedan and drove himself to events.
Ferguson, the senior adviser to Pruitt, said “there was no wasted time” on Pruitt’s commutes between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
“He was working, reviewing documents, on the phone,” Ferguson said.
Overall spending on travel by Pruitt’s office averaged about $270,000 a year in his last four years as Oklahoma’s attorney general, up 26 per cent from his predecessor’s final year in office. The figures do not include a total for Pruitt’s trips alone. The attorney general’s office spent $201,000 on travel during his predecessor’s last year in the office.
He frequently travelled to Washington to speak to groups including the Federalist Society; the Club for Growth, a free-enterprise advocacy group; and an anti-abortion rally. He also made similar appearances elsewhere, such as one before the small-government FreedomWorks group in Cleveland on “Battling the Regulatory State.”
“If it’s not state-related, then the state should not be responsible for” the cost, said Jones, the state auditor. “You can’t use any public assets for personal or political reasons.”
Records show many of the trips occurred during the workweek, when Pruitt was drawing a state salary of $132,000. Oklahoma broadly bans first-class tickets for state employees. The travel records show only one first-class flight for Pruitt, with a scrawled note on it showing Pruitt’s campaign paid for it.
Edmondson, who is now running for governor, said his travel expenses as attorney general typically covered national and regional conventions of attorneys general.
“I think you’ll find that his out-of-state travel would far exceed any other attorney general” in Oklahoma, said former Gov. David Walters, a Democrat, who recalled Pruitt speaking before local clubs on topics such as the Obama administration, rather than crime or consumer fraud in Oklahoma.
Conservative groups hosting Pruitt appeared to reimburse most of Pruitt’s flights and some other direct state travel expenses after 2015, and some beforehand.
But on one trip in January 2016, Pruitt billed taxpayers more than $1,000 for a trip to Washington in which he held separate meetings with executives of three conservative think tanks: the APP Foundation, The Federalist Society and Club for Growth. There was no record of reimbursement for that trip. Three weeks later, Pruitt spent the weekend in California for a dinner and a speech to The Federalist Society, which reimbursed the state for his travel.