Watch­dog: Agency broke law on EPA chief’s pri­vacy booth

Chicago Tribune - - NATION & WORLD - By Michael Biesecker

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 first-class 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 Pruitt-re­lated 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.

AN­DREW HARNIK/AP

EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt is under fire for his agency’s spend­ing $43,000 for a pri­vacy booth in his of­fice.

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