Watchdog: Agency broke law on EPA chief’s privacy booth
WASHINGTON — An internal government watchdog says the Environmental Protection Agency violated federal spending laws when it purchased a $43,000 soundproof privacy booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt to make private phone calls in his office.
The Government Accountability Office issued its findings Monday in a letter to Senate Democrats who had requested a review of Pruitt’s spending.
GAO General Counsel Thomas Armstrong determined that EPA’s purchase of the booth violated federal law prohibiting agencies from spending more than $5,000 for redecorating, furnishings or other improvements to the offices of presidential appointees without informing Congress. Because EPA used federal money in a manner specifically prohibited by law, Armstrong said the agency also violated the Antideficiency Act, and is legally obligated to report that violation to Congress.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said the agency is “addressing GAO’s concern, with regard to congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week.”
EPA said previously that Pruitt needed the privacy booth to make secure phone calls with President Donald Trump and other senior administration officials without fear of eavesdropping. It is among several unusual security precautions taken by Pruitt that are now under scrutiny, like his use frequent use of firstclass flights to avoid unpleasant interactions with other travelers.
The Associated Press first reported in December that EPA also spent about $9,000 for an outside contractor to sweep Pruitt’s office for secret listening devices and installed biometric locks.
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who requested the GAO review, said the finding was yet another example of the embattled EPA administrator flouting federal spending rules.
“An illegal privacy booth to conduct secret discussions with his polluter friends does nothing to help our health or environment,” Udall said Monday. “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. He has been a disaster, and it’s past time for him to go.”
Pruitt and those around him are under multiple investigations launched by government watchdogs and congressional committees. EPA’s inspector general has at least five ongoing Pruittrelated probes, while the House oversight panel on Friday demanded interviews with five of the EPA administrator’s closest aides.
Among the issues being probed by EPA’s inspector general is whether Pruitt’s office properly used authority granted to the EPA administrator under the Safe Drinking Water Act to hire and give raises to a limited number of employees.
Among those who have received massive raises under that authority are two young aides to Pruitt he brought with him to EPA from Oklahoma, where he previously served as state attorney general.
EPA senior legal counsel Sarah Greenwalt, 30, got two raises totaling more than $66,000, bringing her salary to $164,200 a year. Scheduling director Millan Hupp, 26, saw her salary jump to $114,590, with raises totaling more than $48,000.
In a combative Fox News interview on April 4, Pruitt insisted he didn’t approve the big raises and didn’t know who did.
In an unusual management alert issued Monday, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins said his staff had reviewed personnel documents for six employees who were hired or had received raises under the Safe Drinking Water Act since Pruitt came to the agency last year.
The inspector general said some hiring documents were signed by Pruitt himself, while chief of staff Ryan Jackson signed off on forms approving big raises, adding the words “for Scott Pruitt” to his signature.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is under fire for his agency’s spending $43,000 for a privacy booth in his office.