Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, broke the law by spending $43,000 to install a soundproof phone booth, a government watchdog concluded in a report released Monday.
The Government Accountability Office found that the EPA violated the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act by spending more than $5,000 on the phone booth without notifying Congress.
The EPA defended the decision to install the phone booth, which it said the administrator required to make classified phone calls to the White House. The GAO declined to rule on the phone booth’s necessity, but said its construction qualified as a furnishing under federal statute, meaning the “EPA was required to notify the appropriations committees of its proposed obligation.”
The agency also found that the EPA violated the Antideficiency Act by spending more than the amount Congress approved.
“Because EPA did not comply with the notification requirement, the funds were not legally available at the time EPA incurred the obligation,” the report concludes.
“EPA is addressing GAO’s concern, with regard to Congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week,” Liz Bowman, an EPA spokeswoman, said in a statement to HuffPost.
The congressional notification requirement does not carry a penalty for the agency. The EPA could, however, face administrative penalties under the Antideficiency Act. The law allows for criminal prosecution if an agency staffer knowingly violated the statute, but that seems highly unlikely. The Department of Justice has not brought charges against under the Antideficiency Act in modern history.
“The Anti-Deficiency Act is a criminal statute, but as a practical matter, it has never been used to prosecute anyone in a situation like this,” Clark Pettig, a spokesman for the watchdog group American Oversight, told HuffPost by email.
The report comes amid slowly intensifying Republican criticism of the EPA over its growing list of spending scandals. In a statement, Sen. 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.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who is overseeing an investigation into Pruitt as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, skewered the administrator on Sunday over his claim that he booked first-class flights to avoid verbal attacks from fellow passengers in the coach section.
“The notion that I’ve got to fly first class because I don’t want people to be mean to me ― you need to go into another line of work if you don’t want people to be mean to you,” Gowdy said on Fox News. “Like maybe a monk.”
The phone booth first attracted criticism from Democrats and spending watchdogs after The Washington Post reported on its construction last September. In December, Pruitt told lawmakers he needed the booth.
“It’s necessary for me to be able to do my job,” he said.
In the footnotes of the GAO report, the agency said the EPA installed two soundproof phone booths, called “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities.”
“These are operated by EPA sub-organizations and are located three floors away from the Administrator’s office,” the report states.
The findings came in response to a request from top Democrats, who are calling for Pruitt to resign over rampant spending and ethical lapses. The report arrived just three days after Democrats leading a congressional investigation into Pruitt released letters detailing accusations of “unethical and potentially illegal” moves. The explosive new allegations came from an interview with Kevin Chmielewski, a lifelong Republican and former Trump aide who served as the EPA’s deputy chief of staff until he was removed for raising alarm over Pruitt’s spending habits.
The latest controversies keep attention on Pruitt for a third consecutive week. The scandals began last month when ABC News reported that Pruitt paid just $50 a night to live in a luxury condo owned by an energy lobbyist with business before the EPA. The deal cast light on Pruitt’s roughly two dozen ethical breaches and prompted at least three Republican members of Congress to call for his resignation.
President Donald Trump has signaled strong support for Pruitt, whose vast network of conservative allies mounted an effort to defend him over the past month. But the White House could be more open to Pruitt’s exit since the Senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, as the EPA’s deputy administrator on Friday. Wheeler now holds the second highest position at the agency and would automatically become acting administrator if Pruitt leaves. The Senate would have to hold another vote to confirm him as the permanent administrator. But vaguely-written laws grant the White House significant leeway in how long it could keep Wheeler as the de facto administrator without holding another vote.