WASHINGTON — An internal government watchdog says the Environmental Protection Agency violated federal spending laws when purchasing 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 has 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 Millian 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.
The names of the employees at issue were blacked out from the documents released to the public, though the hire dates and raises awarded to two of the redacted employees exactly matched information for Greenwalt and Hupp.
The inspector general's audit into the raises is continuing, but Elkins' letter said the interim alert was issued to notify Pruitt "of certain factual information."
Democrats and a few Republicans have been calling on Pruitt either to resign or be fired since late last month, when media reports first disclosed that he had rented a Capitol Hill condo tied to an oil and gas lobbyist at the bargain rate of $50 a night.
Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and typically a staunch defender of Pruitt, agreed that EPA needs to follow the law.
"It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer dollars," he said. "EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law."
Other Republicans have been more forceful in criticizing Pruitt.
In a Fox News interview over the weekend, House oversight chairman Trey Gowdy said he was especially troubled by Pruitt's use of security concerns to justify spending on premium-class airfare.
"You need to go into another line of work if you don't want people to be mean to you," the South Carolina Republican quipped. "Like maybe a monk, where you don't come in contact with anyone."