Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt’s lavish spending and deep concerns about security had put his future in the Trump Cabinet in jeopardy. But what was the cost to taxpayers?
AP beat reporter Michael Biesecker, whose aggressive coverage of Pruitt began more than a year ago when Trump nominated him for the EPA post, began working sources still at the agency and those who had left in search of the answer. His findings – that Pruitt spent about a whopping $3 million on security in the first year – win the Beat of the Week award.
Pruitt’s staff had rebuffed reporters’ questions for months, saying that publicly revealing the size of Pruitt’s security team or how much it was spending would imperil his safety. FOIAs about Pruitt’s security arrangement had yielded only a few documents, all of them almost completely redacted.
Working in a highly competitive environment, Biesecker found a current EPA official who had direct knowledge of Pruitt’s security spending and was willing to talk. The official told Biesecker that Pruitt spent about $3 million on security in his first year, protected by an armed detail more than three times that of his predecessor. The demands of 24-7 protection blew through overtime budgets, forcing investigators to be diverted from field work to assist in security.
Biesecker also learned from sources that Pruitt, who said he was flying first-class at taxpayer expense because of unspecified security threats, chose to fly coach for some weekend trips home to Oklahoma, when taxpayers weren’t paying.
Also, at times, he accepted a companion ticket obtained with frequent flyer miles accumulated by a former law partner whom Pruitt had hired as a senior aide at EPA, which experts said raised additional ethical issues.
Biesecker’s exclusive story landed Friday night, sending his competitors scrambling. Lisa Friedman of The New York Times tweeted the AP story while still needling Biesecker, and Emily Holden of Politico tweeted: "Big scoop here from @mbieseck."
By Saturday, the eye-popping details revealed in AP’s report were reverberating around Washington. Investigators within EPA and on Capitol Hill expressed interest in Biesecker’s reporting as part of ongoing probes into Pruitt’s activities. The New York Times was among the news organizations crediting AP in their own stories about Pruitt.
In a highly competitive environment, Biesecker found an EPA official who had direct knowledge of Pruitt’s spending and was willing to talk.
And in a tweet Saturday night, President Donald Trump confirmed AP’s report that Pruitt’s security costs were higher than his predecessor’s, but repeated the claims of Pruitt’s staff that the outsized spending was necessary because of “unprecedented” death threats.
The AP story was picked up 780 times and widely tweeted and retweeted. It also appeared prominently in print, including on the front page of Pruitt’s hometown paper, the Tulsa World.
For scooping the competition with key details on a huge Washington story, Biesecker wins the Beat of the Week.