GAO: EPA violated spending laws building soundproof booth in Pruitt’s office

The Environmental Protection Agency breached multiple laws when it installed a soundproof booth in Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office last year, according to a government watchdog office.

The Government Accountability Office determined Monday that the EPA failed to notify members of Congress that it spent more than $43,000 to set up a soundproof “privacy booth” in Pruitt’s office that was meant to conduct private phone calls.

A provision in the 2017 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act prohibits agencies from spending more than $5,000 to “furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for, or make improvements for the office of a presidential appointee,” without notifying the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

According to EPA, the booth “not only enables the Administrator to make and receive phone calls to discuss sensitive information, but it also enables him to use this area to make and receive classified telephone calls (up to the top secret level) for the purpose of conducting agency business.”

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GAO declined to comment on whether the soundproof booth, which was built out of a former storage closet in the administrator’s office, was the most effective way to ensure private communications.

“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 wrote in its letter.

The agency reports it spent over $24,000 for the booth itself and over $18,000 in “space reconfiguration costs,” and explained it did not give prior notice to members of Congress because the booth “does not constitute an aesthetic improvement.”

The privacy booth, the EPA argued, was “analogous to other functional items an employee might require to perform his job duties such as a high speed computer, high speed copier/scanner, or television.” However, GAO disagreed with that interpretation of the law, and determined that the EPA was required to report construction of the booth to lawmakers.

Because the EPA did not report its spending on the booth to Congress, GAO also found that the EPA violated the Antideficiency Act, which forbids an agency from spending beyond legally available amounts.

“Because EPA did not comply with the notification requirement, the funds were not legally available at the time EPA incurred the obligation,” GAO said.

GAO General Counsel Thomas Armstrong released the agency’s legal opinion in a letter to Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.). The lawmakers had requested the GAO review.

“An illegal privacy booth to conduct secret discussions with his polluter friends does nothing to help our health or environment,” Udall said in a statement  “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.”

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.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman confirmed that the agency has seen the GAO review, and will respond this week.

“EPA is addressing GAO’s concern, with regard to congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week,” Bowman said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.