A federal watchdog said Monday that EPA broke the law by failing to notify lawmakers that it spent more than $43,000 to build a secure phone booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt in his office.
The report from the Government Accountability Office focuses on the phone booth, which is one of several items that critics have said showed Pruitt was spending excessively for security measures. Other expenditures included expanding the security staff to provide round-the-clock protection for Pruitt, and first-class travel for the administrator and his security personnel to limit his exposure to potential threats from fellow passengers.
Construction of the phone booth violated the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act by spending well above the $5,000 limit that requires the agency to notify Congress, according to the GAO.
"We conclude that EPA violated section 710 when it obligated $43,238.68 for the installation of a soundproof privacy booth without providing advance notice to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate,” the GAO report said.
EPA defended the booth as necessary to Pruitt's work, arguing that it was similar to a computer or other equipment he uses. But GAO said the booth is clearly a "furnishment" under the law and thus should have been reported to Congress in advance. EPA did not say whether the phone booth had been certified as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF.
“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,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said in a statement to POLITICO.
Critics wondered why Pruitt needed a place to make secure phone calls in his office since the agency already had two SCIFs in its headquarters. Those SCIFs are located outside of Pruitt’s secure suite of offices, however.
The GAO report specifically steered clear of judging whether installing the booth was the best or only way to provide Pruitt with a secure phone line.
GAO is also reviewing Pruitt's appearance in a cattle industry video that asked for public comments on Pruitt's plan to repeal the Waters of the U.S. rule. Democrats similarly alleged his actions violated the Antideficiency Act.
Separately, Bloomberg News reported on Monday that EPA's watchdog will issue a report that says Pruitt's chief of staff approved the controversial raises for three of Pruitt's aides.
That report from EPA's inspector general would support Pruitt, who told Fox News earlier this month that he was unaware of the salary increases until they were reported publicly. His chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, had said last week that he approved the raises, using a provision under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The White House had declined to grant the raises for the aides, Sarah Greenwalt, a senior counsel to Pruitt, and Millan Hupp, director of scheduling and advance. Bloomberg also reported that Samantha Dravis, a former top aide to Pruitt, was believed to be the third staffer to receive a salary hike.
According to the report, personnel forms show that Jackson signed off on the salary increases twice, as both an "action requested by Ryan T. Jackson, chief of staff" and under "action authorized by E. Scott Pruitt, administrator." In the second authorization box, Jackson signed "Ryan Jackson for Scott Pruitt."
It is unclear whether Jackson was acting under Pruitt’s explicit instructions.
The IG report was part of a larger investigation into EPA’s use of a special hiring authority under the SDWA, which allows Pruitt to hire up to 30 staffers without having to go through normal hiring procedures or subjecting the staffers to the Trump administration’s ethics pledge.
The SDWA authority was intended to allow EPA to bring on board engineers or scientists with subject matter expertise. Democratic critics alleged that Pruitt used it to get key political appointees in place quickly or to bypass ethics issues, and asked for the IG to review the matter. But EPA has dismissed those criticisms.
“Salary determinations for appointees are made by EPA’s chief of staff, White House liaison, and career human resources officials. Salaries are based on work history; and, any increases are due to either new and additional responsibilities or promotions," EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said.
Records released last summer by EPA show that a dozen EPA political staffers were working in “administratively determined” positions as of mid-July 2017, while another 22 had been converted to permanent political appointees or left the agency.
Among those still working under the special hiring authority at that time were Nancy Beck, the deputy for EPA's chemicals office; Byron Brown, Pruitt's deputy chief of staff; air adviser Mandy Gunasekara; and a number of public affairs officials, including Michael Abboud, Lincoln Ferguson, James Hewitt and Wilcox. Their status may have changed since.
The IG’s audit of EPA’s use of the hiring authority will continue, with a final report expected at a later date.
Emily Holden contributed to this report.