After Price Resignation, Are Trump’s Wasteful Environmental Chiefs Next?
Zinke and Pruitt bilk taxpayers as they gut conservation protections
Just when you thought the swamp couldn’t be any more saturated, Tom Price resigns as Donald Trump’s health and human services secretary over his $400,000 travel-spending scandal. And now, Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke is being investigated by both the Office of Special Counsel and the Interior Department’s inspector general for using taxpayer-funded government-owned or charter planes.
Such gross overspending of American taxpayer money for chartered flights highlights a glaring fact: The Trump administration is as soaked in slime as a sponge sitting in the deepest swamp.
But other denizens of Trump’s swamp deserve much more attention than they’ve gotten — especially as these hypocritical top officials, eager to slash spending on vital environmental protections, waste taxpayer money on luxury travel and other indulgences.
That’s why my organization is suing the federal government and otherwise pressing for records on these cabinet members’ misuse of public funds and public office.
Take Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, whose focus should be on protecting our environment and public health, wants to cut off funding for government lawyers working to force polluters to clean up Superfund sites they contaminated with hazardous waste.
But Pruitt has also racked up more than $58,000 worth of chartered and military flights. And his excessive spending doesn’t end there. He recently became the first EPA administrator in history to have a super-secure phone booth installed in his office. Was it paranoia or a guilty conscience that has driven Pruitt to spend $25,000 on the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility?
Then there’s Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary who is supposed to protect America’s magnificent public lands. Zinke has proposed slashing his staff by 4,000 employees, roughly 8 percent. He also defended White House calls to cut the Interior Department’s budget by 13.4 percent for the 2018 budget.
That makes Zinke’s abuse of taxpayer money even more egregious.
Zinke has opted for a chartered airplane for several flights. One was an astounding $12,000 trip so the secretary could make a speech for a new hockey team. He used military planes to travel to Norway to tour a liquefied natural gas facility, and from there took military and chartered planes to Alaska to look at a ConocoPhillips drilling site.
Zinke excuses his taxpayer-funded flights by claiming that no commercial flights would accommodate him, even though commercial flights go to all of these places. The Interior Department’s inspector general is now investigating Zinke’s extravagant travel expenses.
Between the transgressions of Price, Pruitt and Zinke, it’s no wonder Donald Trump has been calling for slashing federal budgets — maybe he knows there won’t be anything left to pay government salaries when those three are through with their shenanigans.
My colleagues and I have similar concerns. On this matter, we agree with Trump — such abuse of government power should not be tolerated, so we’re glad to see Price gone.
But unlike Trump, we’re also very curious about Pruitt’s behind-the-scenes maneuverings, so we requested records of his communications — which are all public record and subject to FOIA rules.
It turns out the EPA didn’t want to give us those records, which they are required to do under the law. So we sued them and are currently in litigation to see who Pruitt has been emailing or texting about what. We also asked for his schedules and the EPA didn’t provide them, so we sued about that, too.
We’ve also asked for Pruitt’s and Zinke’s expense reports and are awaiting an answer on that front. Whatever happens, we’ll hold our government accountable for any wrongdoings.
No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, we can all agree that waste and abuses of power by any official are unacceptable. Price shouldn’t be the last to resign: It’s time to hold the rest of this cabinet full of swamp things responsible for its misconduct.
Amy Atwood is legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity’s endangered species program.