GAO: Cost Of EPA Chief's Phone Booth Broke The Law

Michael Osbun  Op-Art

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violated the law when it approved a $43,000 soundproof phone booth previous year for the office of embattled Administrator Scott Pruitt, a congressional watchdog unit said on Monday.

"Because EPA obligated appropriated funds in a manner specifically prohibited by law, we conclude that EPA violated the Antideficiency Act", the GAO said in its report.

EPA argued Pruitt's phone booth "serves a functional purpose" by allowing the administrator to carry out agency business and compared it to other office supplies, like high-speed copiers or computers.

GAO disagreed, saying even by that logic, EPA should have notified Congress. EPA officials said Congress was intending to restrict only an "aesthetic improvement" to appointees' offices, but GAO said they were selectively reading the statute. Previous EPA chiefs did not use a secured phone booth in their office to run the agency.

"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".

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In an eight-page letter to lawmakers, Thomas H. Armstrong, the G.A.O.'s general counsel, said the agency did not send advance notice to Congress when it paid $43,238.68 from its Environmental Programs and Management budget to pay for the installation of the soundproof booth. "There are few greater examples of government waste than a $43,000 phone booth". "EPA's failure to make the necessary notification is the only subject of this opinion", he writes.

The EPA's Office of Inspector General also released documents on Monday showing the agency's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, signed off on controversial pay raises for three of Pruitt's staff, including a raise of $29,000 to above $114,000 for his scheduling director, Millan Hupp. EPA officials have said that various threats against Pruitt, including verbal public confrontations, led the head of his security detail to recommend that he fly in the front cabin of planes, both to provide a "buffer" from the public and also so that he could board and exit more quickly.

Trey Gowdy on Sunday said embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt should go into another line of work if he "didn't want people to be mean" to him. "Like maybe a monk, where you don't come in contact with anyone".

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said EPA needs to make "a full public accounting" of its spending on Pruitt's phone booth.

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