GAO: EPA violated law with Pruitt's soundproof booth

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated the law with its approval to pay for a secure soundproof booth in Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE's personal office, a federal watchdog said on Monday.

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that Pruitt's $43,000 "privacy booth" was in violation of Congress's governmentwide spending law passed last year, which caps office redecorations and refurnishings at $5,000 without prior notice to lawmakers.

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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 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. Those costs included $24,570 for purchase, delivery and assembly, nearly $3,500 for concrete floor leveling, almost $3,400 for the construction of a drop ceiling, $3,350 for wall painting, and more than $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 the GAO that the booth "not only enables the Administrator to make and receive phone calls to discuss sensitive information, but it also enables him to use this area to make and receive 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 the EPA to report its violation to Congress and the president "as required by law."

The EPA’s top GOP overseer in the Senate demanded that the EPA explain its actions publicly.

“It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer dollars,” said Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoTrump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Push to change wildlife act sparks lobbying blitz House and Senate negotiators reach agreement on water infrastructure bill MORE (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law,” he said.

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 UdallSenate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Senate Dems want DOJ review of Giuliani's work for foreign entities 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," he said.

Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumHouse completes first half of 2019 spending bills House lawmakers vote to give modest budget cuts to EPA, Interior How the embassy move widens the partisan divide over Israel MORE (D-Minn.), who serves in Udall's equivalent role in the House, 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," she said.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said that Congress now needs to know "how many other laws Pruitt has broken."

“Now that we know that Scott Pruitt’s secrecy extended to the point of breaking the law, the next question Congress needs answered is how many other laws Pruitt has broken,” Beyer said.

“We are only just beginning to learn about what Scott Pruitt has really been up to during his corrupt reign at the EPA. Congress must initiate further oversight to get answers for the public, and hold those responsible for wrongdoing accountable.”

EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said thet 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," she said.

The GAO's investigation did not determine whether Pruitt needed the construction of the soundproof booth for privacy. "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," it said.

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 in-office booth as crucial to the administrator's work.

In 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 2:31 p.m.