EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY BRADY DEN­NIS AND JULIET EILPERIN brady.den­nis@wash­post.com juliet.eilperin@wash­post.com More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/ en­ergy-en­vi­ron­ment

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

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Fol­low­ing the GAO’s find­ings about EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s phone booth, a law­maker called it not just waste­ful, “but ac­tu­ally il­le­gal.”

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