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GAO: Pruitt’s Pricey Privacy Booth Violated Federal Law

Monday report states funds were not legally available

A staffer exits the Senate subway on April 11 with a poster detailing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s ethics issues. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A staffer exits the Senate subway on April 11 with a poster detailing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s ethics issues. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The EPA violated federal law when it paid more than $43,000 to install a soundproof privacy booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt without first notifying congressional appropriators, the Government Accountability Office said.

The agency violated the law by using more than $5,000 of fiscal 2017 appropriated funds for an unintended purpose without giving lawmakers advance notice, GAO investigators wrote in a report released Monday.

“Because EPA did not comply with the notification requirement, the funds were not legally available at the time EPA incurred the obligation,” the GAO report said.

The report was requested by the top Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (Thomas R. Carper of Delaware), the Senate Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee (Tom Udall of New Mexico), the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon) and the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee (Betty McCollum of Minnesota).

If the agency had informed the House and Senate Appropriations committees of the plans to spend that amount on the booth, investigators said, its installation would not have been illegal.

“The GAO letter ‘recognized the … need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line’ when handling sensitive information,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an email. “EPA is addressing GAO’s concern, with regard to Congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week.”

McCollum said the GAO report showed a culture of “corruption, cronyism, and incompetence that is pervasive” at the EPA under Pruitt.

“Worse still, this is part of a pattern of abuse of power, ethics violations, and disrespect for the rule of law by Administrator Pruitt,” the Minnesota Democrat said in a statement. “If President Trump won’t hold Administrator Pruitt accountable, Congress must.”

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‘Mission requirements’

In its explanation to the GAO included in the report, the EPA equated the booth to other necessary office supplies and argued it was needed to “support specific mission requirements” and allow Pruitt to carry out agency business “without concern that classified, deliberative, privileged, or sensitive information might inadvertently be disclosed to those who are not intended to receive such information.”

The GAO’s conclusions compound on other troubles facing Pruitt, who is also under investigation by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General for a number of ethical and spending matters, including his use of first- and business-class travel and expensive hotels for government business, as well as retaliatory actions toward employees who are said to have challenged the spending.

The EPA watchdog also released a preliminary report to provide an update on its ongoing investigation into the appropriateness of using a provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act to quickly hire up to 30 officials and to approve their pay raises.

According to the OIG’s “management alert,” which made no conclusions about the hiring, EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson used an obscure provision in the statute to authorize significant salary raises for certain EPA employees after the White House had refused to approve the increases.

Pruitt has said he did not approve the raises and did not know who did so.

“Salaries are based on work history; and, any increases are due to either new and additional responsibilities or promotions,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in reference to the OIG probe into the hiring and salary raises. “Offices within the Agency have already been responsive to the Inspector General’s inquiries concerning administratively determined positions and will continue to provide information for any future inquiries.”

The lawmakers who requested the investigation into the $43,238 privacy booth view the GAO’s conclusion as evidence of wasteful and illegal actions at the EPA and called for Congress to hold Pruitt accountable.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, who has previously backed Pruitt, said the EPA must give “a full public accounting” of the expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.

“It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending tax payer dollars,” the Wyoming Republican said.

“An illegal privacy booth to conduct secret discussions with his polluter friends does nothing to help our health or environment,” Udall said. “Scott Pruitt is behaving like Swamp emperor rather than EPA administrator — he has shown a shocking lack of regard for public health and safety, ethics and fairness, and the list of ways he has abused his office just keeps getting longer.”

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