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GAO says EPA violated spending law on Scott Pruitt’s privacy booth

Administrator Scott Pruitt faces five inquiries from the EPA’s inspector general.
Bloomberg news/file 2017
Administrator Scott Pruitt faces five inquiries from the EPA’s inspector general.

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency violated federal spending laws when purchasing a $43,000 soundproof privacy booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt to make private phone calls in his office, an internal government watchdog said.

The Government Accountability Office issued its findings Monday in a letter to Senate Democrats who had requested a review of Pruitt’s spending.

GAO general counsel Thomas Armstrong determined that EPA’s purchase of the booth violated federal law prohibiting agencies from spending more than $5,000 for redecorating, furnishings, or other improvements to the offices of presidential appointees without informing Congress.

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Because EPA used federal money in a manner specifically prohibited by law, Armstrong said the agency also violated the Antideficiency Act, and it is legally obligated to report that violation to Congress.

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

EPA has said previously that Pruitt needed the privacy booth to make secure phone calls with President Trump and other senior administration officials without fear of eavesdropping. It is among several unusual security precautions taken by Pruitt that are now under scrutiny, including his use frequent use of first-class flights to avoid unpleasant interactions with other travelers.

The Associated Press reported in December that EPA also spent about $9,000 for a contractor to sweep Pruitt’s office for secret listening devices and installed biometric locks.

Democratic Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, who requested the GAO review, said the finding was yet another example of the embattled EPA administrator flouting federal spending rules.

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‘‘An illegal privacy booth to conduct secret discussions with his polluter friends does nothing to help our health or environment,’’ Udall said Monday.

‘‘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,’’ Udall said.

Pruitt and those around him are under multiple investigations launched by government watchdogs and congressional committees.

EPA’s inspector general has at least five ongoing Pruitt-related inquiries. Among the issues being investigated is whether Pruitt’s office properly used authority granted to the EPA administrator under the Safe Drinking Water Act to hire and give raises to a limited number of employees.

Among those who have received massive raises under that authority are two young aides to Pruitt he brought to EPA from Oklahoma, where he served as state attorney general.

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EPA senior legal counsel Sarah Greenwalt, 30, got two raises totaling $66,000, bringing her salary to $164,200. Scheduling director Millian Hupp, 26, saw her salary jump to $114,590, with raises of about $48,000.