GAO: EPA violated law with Pruitt’s soundproof booth

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated the law with its approval to pay for a secure soundproof booth in Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGowdy mocks Pruitt’s travel spending: Maybe he should become ‘a monk’ instead Democrats promote second annual March for Science: Vote climate change deniers out Holder rips ‘rampant corruption’ in Trump Cabinet MORE ‘s personal office, a federal watchdog said on Monday.

A report by the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) found that Pruitt’s $43,000 “privacy booth” was in violation of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which caps agency redecorations at $5,000 without prior approval.

In a letter sent to four Democratic lawmakers who requested the GAO investigation, the watchdog said that because the EPA approved the booth’s construction without prior congressional approval, the agency was also in violation of the Antideficiency Act, which stipulates that an agency can’t use money that is not appropriated to it.

The GAO in its report noted the EPA’s breakdown of the costs for the booth. They included $24,540 for purchase, delivery and assembly, nearly $3,500 for concrete floor leveling, about $3,400 for the construction of a drop ceiling, $3,350 for wall painting, and $500 for removal of cable wiring. Roughly $8,000 was spent on the removal of closed circuit television equipment already installed in Pruitt’s office.

The EPA argued to the GAO during the investigation that the installation of the booth was not a redecoration and therefore not subject to the $5,000 cap. The agency told GAO that the booth “enables the Administrator to make and receive phone calls to discuss sensitive information, including classified telephone calls up to the top secret level for the purpose of conducting agency business,” according to the GAO’s report.

Nevertheless, the watchdog found that the EPA violated this statutory requirement and directed theEPA to report its violation to Congress and the president “as required by law.”

Democratic lawmakers who requested the report were quick to respond to the findings.

“Scott Pruitt likes to talk about returning the EPA to the rule of law, but it turns out he’s better at breaking it than following it,” Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Cybersecurity: Lawmakers press FBI chief on encryption | Cyber world flocks to RSA conference | Defense contractors face mounting cyber threats Pompeo faces difficult panel vote after grilling by Dems Senators ask FCC to probe Sinclair ‘news distortion operation’ MORE (D-N.M.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, said in a statement Monday.

“This is just one more example of how Scott Pruitt is blatantly breaking laws and ethics rules that protect taxpayers from government waste, fraud and abuse in order to help himself to perks and special favors – and taking deliberate steps to hide everything from Congress and taxpayers.”

Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumDemocrats lay into Trump’s pick of Bolton for national security adviser Trump’s plan for Energy Star sparks industry uproar Trump administration cancels Obama-era environmental review MORE (D-Minn.) called Pruitt’s approval and request of the privacy booth an “abuse of power.”

“There are few greater examples of government waste than a $43,000 phone booth. Now we know that the purchase wasn’t just unnecessary and wasteful, but actually illegal. Worse still, this is part of a pattern of abuse of power, ethics violations, and disrespect for the rule of law by Administrator Pruitt,” McCollum said in a statement.

“The American people deserve so much better than the culture of corruption, cronyism, and incompetence that is pervasive at Administrator Pruitt’s EPA.”

EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said that GAO’s report acknowledged the “need” for Pruitt’s access to a secure telephone line.

“The GAO letter ‘recognized the…need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line’ when handling sensitive information,” Bowman said in a statement Monday.

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

The GAO’s investigation did not determine whether Pruitt needed the construction of the soundproof booth for privacy writing, “We draw no conclusions regarding whether the installation of the privacy booth was the only, or the best, way for EPA to provide a secure telephone line to the Administrator.”

The letter additionally stated: “However, we recognize the requirement to protect classified material and the need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line when handling such information in the course of conducting official agency business.”

The Washington Post first reported in September that the EPA purchased a privacy booth for Pruitt for nearly $25,000. Months later, reports found that the cost of construction and installation nearly doubled the costs associated with the booth.

Pruitt and EPA spokespeople have routinely defended the need for the in-office booth.

Last December Pruitt told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the privacy booth was similar to a sensitive compartmented information facility, telling lawmakers, “It’s necessary for me to be able to do my job.”

In March, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told The Hill that the expense was “old news.”

“In September of 2017 we thoroughly discussed why this secure communications line was needed for the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” Wilcox said.

Updated at 12:44 p.m.