EPA chief Scott Pruitt's $43,000 secure phone booth violated spending laws, government watchdog says

Key Points
  • The EPA violated federal laws by installing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in Administrator Scott Pruitt's office, a government watchdog found.
  • The Government Accountability Office determined the purchase violated a law that prohibits spending more than $5,000 to furnish or redecorate a presidential appointee's office without Congressional approval.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt
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The Environmental Protection Agency violated federal laws by installing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in the office of agency chief Scott Pruitt, a government watchdog said Monday.

The announcement from the Government Accountability Office comes as Pruitt is under fire for his use of taxpayer funds, renting an apartment tied to an energy lobbyist and allegedly retaliating against EPA staff for questioning his decisions.

The equipment in question, a secure communications booth that cost $43,238.68, was first reported last year and became an early symbol of EPA's high spending under Pruitt.

The GAO now said the purchase violated the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which prohibits spending more than $5,000 to furnish or redecorate the office of a presidential appointee without approval from congressional appropriations committees.

"EPA was required to notify the appropriations committees of its proposed obligation. By failing to provide such advance notice, EPA violated section 710" of the law, Thomas H. Armstrong, the GAO's general counsel wrote in a letter to lawmakers who requested the investigation.

The GAO also found the EPA violated the Antideficiency Act because it committed the funds "in a manner specifically prohibited by law."

The EPA whistleblower detailed allegations against Scott Pruitt in a pair of letters
The EPA whistleblower detailed allegations against Scott Pruitt in a pair of letters

The EPA did not immediately return CNBC's request for reaction to the GAO's finding.

Prior EPA administrators did not have similar setups, and Pruitt has access to secure communications equipment elsewhere at the agency's headquarters.

The agency had argued that the phone booth was a piece of functional equipment necessary for Pruitt to perform his job and was therefore not subject to rules regarding decorations or furnishings.

The GAO rejected that argument. Armstrong said the GAO's determination did not address whether the purchase was appropriate, but rather whether EPA followed the law when it approved it.

"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," he said.

The determination marks a setback for the EPA and Pruitt, who is also being investigated by his agency's inspector general and Congress for running up hefty travel and security bills. The White House is also looking into Pruitt's rental of a condo owned by the wife of prominent energy lobbyist Steven Hart, whose firm had business before the EPA while the agency chief was living there.

Those and other controversies have raised speculation that Pruitt could be the next Trump deputy to part ways with an administration that has become notorious for its high turnover. However, President has recently defended Pruitt, who has spearheaded his push to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations.

@realDonald Trump: While Security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA. Record clean Air & Water while saving USA Billions of Dollars. Rent was about market rate, travel expenses OK. Scott is doing a great job!