Watchdog: EPA broke law with $43K phone booth

Watchdog: EPA broke law with $43K phone booth

The EPA chief's much mocked $43,000 "cone of silence" - a soundproof phone booth he ordered installed in his office - violated federal law governing how taxpayers' money could be spent, a new report said Monday. Auditors wrote that the E.P.A.'s "failure to comply with a governmentwide statutory requirement that an agency notify the appropriations committees before it spends more than $5,000 for the office of a presidential appointee" was a violation of the law and should be reported to Congress and the president.

But GAO general counsel Thomas Armstrong concluded it indeed was covered by the rule, and that EPA officials broke the Antideficiency Act by not reporting it to Congress ahead of time.

Though Congressional notification was the only subject of the brief, GAO also remarked that EPA already has two Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs)-installations through which classified information can be shared. "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". According to Kevin Chmielewski, a senior EPA official who served as Pruitt's deputy chief of staff until he was put on unpaid administrative leave earlier this year, Pruitt apparently used his director of scheduling as his personal real estate agent, considered spending $100,000 a month on a private jet rental service, and told his staff to "find me something to do" in particular cities and countries that he wanted to visit for reasons apparently unrelated to his work at EPA.

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"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", GAO said. The agency did not send advance notice of this purchase to Congressional committees. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called on the EPA to "give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law". 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.

Armstrong also said his decision was not a ruling on whether the EPA and Pruitt should have installed the phone booth to begin with. "Like maybe a monk, where you don't come in contact with anyone". In December, Pruitt told lawmakers he needed the booth. In a letter to GAO, EPA argued the booth was not furnishing the office but merely equipment necessary for Pruitt to do his job.

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