Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt broke the law by building a soundproof $43,000 phone booth in his office and not telling lawmakers about it, a government watchdog said Monday in a report that calls on the agency to immediately acknowledge that it violated federal statutes.
In its report, the Government Accountability Office said that the construction of the phone booth — which Mr. Pruitt has said he needs for privacy reasons when discussing potentially sensitive information — fell into a group of categories that require congressional notifications for any expense over $5,000. Those categories include when taxpayer funds are used to “furnish” an office.
“EPA’s statements place the privacy booth squarely within the meaning of ‘furnish,’ as the booth equipped the office with something that EPA asserts it needed,” the GAO said.
At the same time, Mr. Pruitt also is facing a host of investigations related to his living accommodations, expensive security detail, and whether he knew of raises given to two top aides without the White House’s permission. Monday’s report is the first investigation to return a finding, and the determination that the EPA actually broke the law spurred even Republicans — who until Monday had mostly been staunch defenders of Mr. Pruitt — to demand the agency immediately explain itself.
“The Government Accountability Office has found that EPA failed to notify Congress before installing this privacy booth,” said Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer dollars. EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.”
The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats, who have spent the past month calling on Mr. Pruitt to resign, suggested that Monday’s report is just the tip of the iceberg, and that further investigations will uncover more evidence of wrongdoing.
“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,” said Rep. Don Beyer, Virginia Democrat. “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.”
Specifically, under the federal Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, the EPA should have notified congressional appropriations committees about the expenditure, the GAO said. Section 710 of the law “prohibits an agency from obligating or expending an amount in excess of $5,000 to furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for, or make improvements for the office of a presidential appointee during the period of appointment without prior notification,” the GAO said.
“EPA violated section 710 … when it failed to notify the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and Senate prior to obligating in excess of $5,000 to install a soundproof privacy booth for the office of the administrator during his period of appointment,” the watchdog said, adding that the agency should officially “report” the fact that it broke the law.
Mr. Pruitt’s critics on the environmental left pounced on the news.
“Scott Pruitt has turned the agency charged with protecting the environment and public health into an oasis for polluters and industry lobbyists. Of the 11 ongoing investigations into Pruitt’s unethical dealings and waste of taxpayer dollars, one has already found that Pruitt broke the law by refusing to notify Congress of his excessive spending on a private phone booth,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president with the League of Conservation Voters. “Every member of Congress should join the more than 100 members from both parties who are calling on Pruitt to go.”