GAO Says EPA Violated Spending Law on Pruitt’s Privacy Booth

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks at an April 3, 2018, news conference in Washington. An internal government watchdog says the EPA violated federal spending laws when purchasing a $43,000 soundproof privacy booth for Pruitt to make private phone calls in his office. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s purchase of a $43,000 soundproof privacy booth violated federal law, according to a letter published Monday by the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO, a nonpartisan auditing and investigative agency reporting to the U.S. Congress, released its findings to Senate Democrats who requested a full review of the administrator’s purchases in 2017.

According to Thomas Armstrong, the GAO’s general counsel, Pruitt’s purchase of the privacy booth violated maximum spending caps enforced by the federal government for furnishings or other improvements.

His failure to gain approval from Congress for the purchase also triggered a violation of the Antideficiency Act, Armstrong wrote.

“Section 710 [of the act] prohibits an agency from obligating or expending an amount in excess of $5,000 to furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for, or make improvements for the office of a presidential appointee during the period of appointment without prior notification to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Armstrong wrote.

When reached for comment Monday, agency spokeswoman Liz Bowman said “the GAO letter ‘recognized the … need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line’ when handling sensitive information.”

“EPA is addressing GAO’s concern, with regard to congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week,” Bowman told Courthouse News.

After his appointment last year, Pruitt spent roughly $25,000 on the custom booth, and another $18,000 to reconfigure his office for the device. Pruitt defended his purchase to a congressional oversight committee in December, saying the booth acted as a makeshift SCIF, or a sensitive compartmented information facility.

Due to the sensitive and classified nature of his calls, particularly with members of the White House, the SCIF was necessary, Pruitt told lawmakers in December.

None of the EPA’s former administrators have requested similar arrangements before and a SCIF is already present at the agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, according to the Associated Press.

All agency officials with approved security clearance can access the room at anytime.

Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, has come under scrutiny for a series of unusual expenditures since taking his post.

Just last week, several lawmakers issued a letter to the administrator noting their concern over allegations brought against him by one of his former aides, Kevin Chmielewski.

Chmielewski, the former deputy chief of staff for operations at the EPA, told members of congress he was fired after refusing to approve first class travel for Pruitt’s aide and head of the EPA’s Office of Policy, Samantha Dravis.

According to lawmakers, Chmielewski also corroborated reports of Pruitt’s wasteful spending on items from biometric locks to personal trips abroad to unexplained pay raises given to members of his core staff through loopholes in agency policy.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee issued a statement Monday saying it was “critical” the EPA comply with the necessary notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer funds.

“EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law,” Barrasso said.

In addition to providing answers to Barrasso, Pruitt must also respond to Friday’s request by senate democrats for copies of emails, meeting minutes and memos related to the travel costs, raises and the administrator’s alleged internal inquiry into his use of a $100,000 private jet, no later than April 25.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a staunch critic of Pruitt’s since his appointment at the EPA, had a few choice words for the former Oklahoma attorney general via Twitter Monday.

“It’s time for Scott Pruitt to go. He can use the phone booth to call the movers,” Markey wrote.

As controversy around the administrator has ramped up over the last several weeks, so too has speculation suggesting the president would fire the agency head. Despite that, the president has been widely supportive of Pruitt.

On April 6, the president lamented the “fake news media” on Twitter, saying Pruitt was “doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege.”

The White House did not immediately respond to request for comment Monday.

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