WASHINGTON – Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler plans to organize two taxpayer-funded trips abroad – to Taiwan next month and to four Latin American countries in January – before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. took over and moved to overturn most of his policies.
Both trips raised concerns about taxpayer spending at a time when Mr. Wheeler no longer represents the policy direction of the EPA, and he and his top aides are expected to help with the transition to the Biden administration.
Traveling to Taiwan is expected to require a chartered flight costing more than $ 250,000 to avoid coronavirus risks and due to the long quarantines required for business travelers, according to three people knowledgeable about the trip. The three-day visit, scheduled for the week of Dec. 5, will cost around $ 45,000 for a 10-person delegation, according to documents from the EPA and the American Institute of Taiwan as well as people familiar with planning, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the preparations.
James Hewitt, a spokesperson for Mr Wheeler, said the agency was still working on logistics, but said the administrator had been invited to Taiwan “to collaborate on issues such as the Save our Seas initiative. and marine litter, air quality and children’s health. ” Mr Wheeler called plastic waste a “top priority” and the EPA recently released a global strategy to tackle marine litter.
Mr Hewitt did not acknowledge Biden’s incoming administration or the transition, and added, “Administrator Wheeler remains as the head of the agency and will continue to advance environmental progress at home and abroad. “
EPA officials noted that Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA under the Obama administration, had also visited Taiwan, and the total cost was over $ 68,000. This trip took place in 2014, two years before Mr. Trump’s election, and did not involve a charter flight.
Besides Mr. Wheeler, the delegation to Taiwan should include Mandy Gunasekara, his chief of staff, and Michael Molina, his deputy chief of staff.
Two people knowledgeable about the trip said meetings with senior Taiwan officials were not planned well in advance, as is typical of such trips, and were instead hastily cobbled together. The same people said there had been no political goals or declared events for the trip to Latin America, only a preference for which countries to visit.
Aides said they were tasked with planning visits for Mr Wheeler to visit Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic – but to make plans for other countries in the region if those four are not possible.
No international environmental conferences or events are planned in these countries in January.
Hewitt said in a statement about the trip to Latin America “nothing has been planned yet”.
Mr. Wheeler isn’t the only senior Trump administration official preparing for a lame duck trip. Chad F. Wolf, Secretary of Homeland Security, is planning a trip to Latin America in December, a homeland security official familiar with the matter confirmed. The date and countries are still under development but could include El Salvador, Panama, Brazil and Ecuador. This trip was first reported by the Washington Post.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal-leaning watchdog group, said Mr. Wheeler’s trips are legal as long as they have an official purpose. But, he said, “ethically it seems deeply problematic,” especially as coronavirus infections are at record levels in the United States and remain high in South America.
“The pandemic adds expense and hardship to almost everything, but certainly to any type of official travel. When this travel is necessary for government business, people understand that whatever resources are needed, it probably would not cost them additional expenses, ”Mr. Bookbinder said.
But, he added, “it’s hard to imagine a situation in a non-emergency scenario where a cabinet official’s time will be better spent traveling abroad than here in Washington,” to prepare for an orderly transition.
Taiwan has been widely praised for quickly containing the coronavirus pandemic, but in recent weeks it has been concerned about an increase in cases of travelers entering the country. Foreigners traveling to Taiwan are tested for the coronavirus before being allowed entry, and people familiar with Mr Wheeler’s trip have said the chartered flight was necessary to avoid a long and expensive quarantine.
Alex Azar, the secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, flew to Taiwan this summer, also flying on a charter flight.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.