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. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees EPA.
The EPA claimed that the soundproof booth - like that used by bumbling spy Maxwell Smart from the 60's sitcom and 2008 flick "Get Smart" starring Steve Carrell - was not part of the redecoration of Pruitt's office so the $5,000 cap didn't apply. "Accordingly, section 710 [of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act] applied to this obligation and EPA was required to notify the appropriations committees of its proposed obligation", Thomas Armstong, the GAO's General Counsel wrote in a letter to Democratic lawmakers on Monday. The law prohibits an agency from obligating more than $5,000 in federal funds to furnish, redecorate or make improvements in the office of a presidential appointee without first notifying appropriations committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The probe into the spending was originally being handled by EPA's inspector general, but the watchdog subsequently passed it on to GAO.
"The GAO letter "recognized the ... need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line" when handling sensitive information", EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an email.
EPA interpreted the requirement it notify Congress applies to "aesthetic improvement (s)" made to Pruitt's office, and compared the $43,000 booth to purchasing other electronics required for an employee's job. 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 Monday.
Statements from environmental groups also poured in, with several calling on Pruitt to leave the agency. "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, and the list of ways he has abused his office just keeps getting longer".
Despite his assorted controversies, Pruitt has remained a favorite of President Trump for his anti-regulation and pro-business stances.
"Further, because EPA obligated appropriated funds in a manner specifically prohibited by law, we conclude that EPA violated the Antideficiency Act", GAO said.
"There are few greater examples of government waste than a $43,000 phone booth", they said.
"It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending tax payer dollars", the Wyoming Republican said. "EPA's failure to make the necessary notification is the only subject of this opinion".