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Pruitt: EPA lawyers said privacy booth was legal

Pruitt: EPA lawyers said privacy booth was legal
© Greg Nash

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA puts science ‘transparency’ rule on back burner Tucker Carlson says he 'can't really' dine out anymore because people keep yelling at him Overnight Energy: Trump administration doubles down on climate skepticism | Suspended EPA health official hits back | Military bases could host coal, gas exports MORE on Thursday blamed the agency’s career, non-political lawyers for the controversy over his $43,000 soundproof privacy booth, saying that the attorneys believed it was legal. 

Rep. Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteLive coverage: Social media execs face grilling on Capitol Hill Women poised to take charge in Dem majority Bipartisan leaders of House panel press drug companies on opioid crisis MORE (D-Colo.) repeatedly asked at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing if Pruitt knew that the booth expenditures were illegal.

The EPA’s Office of General Counsel “has indicated, again, that their opinion is that it’s not a violation,” Pruitt said.

That matches what the EPA told the Government Accountability Office (GAO) when it was investigating the matter. The GAO ruled last week that the expenditures were illegal.

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Congress put a $5,000 cap on expenses to furnish or decorate agency heads’ offices, though it can be exceeded if the agency notifies Congress, a step that the EPA didn’t take. The EPA argued that the $5,000 cap is only intended for redecorating, and that the privacy booth is not the kind of improvement that Congress intended to ban.

DeGette on Thursday tried to find out if Pruitt or his staff knew that the booth was illegal, but Pruitt repeated that the counsel’s office thought it was legal.

“I’m sorry, you can’t filibuster, sir,” the congresswoman responded.

DeGette also asked if the EPA would punish anybody for the violation.

“We are investigating this internally with appropriate individuals both here as well as the inspector general,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt has justified the booth by saying that he needs to be able to have secure phone conversations with parties like the White House. It is not a certified sensitive compartmentalized information facility, a certification for facilities used to view or communicate classified information.

“There are secured conversations that need to take place that I didn’t have access to,” he told the same committee in December. “Cabinet-level officials need to have access to secured communications.”

The EPA has secure communications facilities elsewhere in its headquarters building.

Pruitt later in the hearing went a step further, saying he didn't even approve the privacy booth expenditure.

“Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through,” Pruitt told Rep. Tony CardenasAntonio (Tony) CardenasMORE (D-Calif.). “I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000, and if I’d known about it, congressman, I would have refused it.”

He explained the genesis of the booth as well.

“I did have a phone call that came in, of a sensitive nature, and I did not have access to secure communications. I gave direction to my staff to address that,” Pruitt said.

“And out of that came a $43,000 expenditure that I did not approve," he continued.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget is now investigating the soundproof both as a follow-up to the GAO’s report.

Violating the Antideficiency Act, as the GAO found the EPA did, can result in prison time, but it never has.

Updated at 12:17 p.m.