By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violated the law when it approved a $43,000 soundproof phone booth last year for the office of embattled Administrator Scott Pruitt, a congressional watchdog unit said on Monday.
The Government Accountability Office said the EPA violated the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act. 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 EPA also violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies from incurring expenses in excess of funds available in appropriations, the GAO said.
Liz Bowman, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency was “addressing GAO’s concern, with regard to Congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week.”
The privacy booth, which Pruitt had told lawmakers in a hearing was needed to conduct agency business, was built in a spot of a former storage closet in the administrator’s office.
The GAO had been asked to investigate the matter by Democratic lawmakers including U.S. Senators Tom Carper and Tom Udall.
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican and the head of the Senate environment committee, earlier this month had rejected a request by Carper and others for a hearing looking into allegations that Pruitt had spent wastefully.
But Barrasso said in a statement after the GAO’s decision that Pruitt’s agency must give a “full public accounting” on the spending on the booth and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.
Pruitt has been under fire from Republican and Democratic lawmakers for expensive travel and other expenses. Last week, Democratic lawmakers asked him to provide documents about ethics issues they said were revealed to them by a former agency official, including spending on bulletproof vests, guns and a contract with an Italian security service.
Also last week, fellow Republican Trey Gowdy, head of the oversight committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, asked Pruitt for more documents for his probe into the administrator’s first-class air travel and leasing of a room in a Washington condo for $50 a night for nights he was there.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the GAO decision.
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.
Pruitt had originally recommended the raises but was denied by the White House. Jackson approved them using the authority granted under an obscure provision in a clean water law, the documents said.
Pruitt said in an interview with Fox News this month that he had no knowledge of the raises. “It shouldn’t have been done,” he said. “There will be some accountability.”
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not respond to a request for comment on the hires.
Republican President Donald Trump has said he supports Pruitt, who has carried out his policy goals of slashing regulations on the oil, natural gas and coal industries, but will look into allegations about ethics lapses.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis, editing by Dan Grebler, David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)