Scott Pruitt’s soundproof phone booth violated spending laws, a watchdog group said.
The nearly $43,000 soundproof phone booth that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt had installed in his office last year violated federal spending laws, the Government Accountability Office said Monday.
In an eight-page letter to lawmakers, GAO general counsel Thomas H. Armstrong said the agency failed to notify lawmakers that it was exceeding the $5,000 limit for agency heads to furnish, redecorate or otherwise make improvements to their offices. In addition, Armstrong wrote, the agency also violated the federal Antideficiency Act, “because EPA obligated appropriated funds in a manner specifically prohibited by law.”
The EPA had argued that the almost $25,000 customized phone booth — which required painting, concrete and electrical work totaling more than $18,000 to reconfigure the small closet area where it was placed — was not part of a redecoration of Pruitt’s office and should not be subject to the $5,000 cap.
While the agency maintains other areas in its building where officials can place secure calls, and while none of Pruitt’s predecessors have had such a setup, the agency argued that the privacy booth allows Pruitt to “make and receive calls to discuss sensitive information . . . (up to the top secret level) for the purpose of conducting agency business.” It also argued that the booth was “analogous to other functional items an employee might require to perform his job duties such as a high speed computer, high speed copier/scanner, or television.”
Armstrong made it clear Monday the decision was not a ruling on whether the EPA and Pruitt should have installed the highpriced phone booth to begin with.
“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 for the Administrator,” he wrote. “EPA’s failure to make the necessary notification is the only subject of this opinion.”
“EPA is addressing GAO’s concern, with regard to congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said, adding that the EPA’s general counsel had reached a different legal conclusion from the GAO and did not believe the agency needed to give lawmakers advance warning about the upgrade.
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the Republican chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the EPA, said in a state-- Monday that the agency owes lawmakers an explanation. “It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer dollars,” Barrasso said. “EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.”
Rep. Betty McCollum (DMinn.), one of several lawmakers who requested the GAO review, said in a statement Monday “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. The American people deserve so much better than the culture of corruption, cronyism, and incompetence that is pervasive in the Trump administration and the Pruitt EPA.”
EPA officials, including Pruitt himself, have said the administrator needs a secure area to talk to White House officials and others in the administration. Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in December, Pruitt likened the booth to a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF.
“It’s necessary for me to be able to do my job,” he told lawmakers.
The agency has long maintained an SCIF on a separate floor from the administrator’s office, where officials with proper clear- ances can go to share information classified as secret. Pruitt’s aides have never specified what aspects of that facility might be outdated, or whether the unit now inside the administrator’s office meets the physical and technical specifications generally required for a SCIF. Armstrong noted Monday the agency “did not state whether the booth has been certified” as an SCIF.
To install the booth, the EPA signed a contract last year with Acoustical Solutions, a Richmond-based company. The firm sells and installs various sound-damping and privacy products, from ceiling baffles to full-scale enclosures like the one picked by the EPA. Agency officials ordered a soundproof booth customized to ensure private conversations.
“They had a lot of modifications,” Steve Snider, an acoustic sales consultant with the company, told The Washington Post at the time.
Separately Monday, the EPA’s inspector general released a “management alert” that detailed how Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, had used a provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act to quickly bring on multiple political appointees and later boost their salaries.
The interim report, which stems from a broader, ongoing audit of the agency’s use of the law’s hiring authority, detailed how Jackson awarded more than a half dozen appointees generous raises within a year of them joining the EPA. An EPA scheduling and advance director received a 72.3 percent raise last year, according to documents and agency officials, while senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt got a 67.6 percent raise. Other appointees, such as Pruitt’s speechwriter Lincoln Ferguson and senior advance associate Forrest McMurray, received at least a 25 percent salary boost in 2017.
The inspector general said Monday’s report was intended to “provide certain factual information” but “does not present any conclusions or recommendations.”
EPA officials said nearly all of the raises came after these aides had taken on additional responsibilities or had been promoted.
“Salary determinations for appointees are made by EPA’s chief of staff, White House liaison and career human resources officials,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said, who added the agency had been “responsive” to the inspector general’s inquiries. “Salary determinations are made to avoid disparities among positions of equivalent or similar responsibilities, to the extent possible.”
Pruitt and his top aides used the law’s authority to bring appointees aboard quickly to help implement the Trump administration’s agenda. Previous administrations have employed the provision in similar ways, though they do not appear to have used it as often.
Audit says EPA failed to notify Congress about exceeding $5,000 limit
Following the GAO’s findings about EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s phone booth, a lawmaker called it not just wasteful, “but actually illegal.”