The Environmental Protection Agency violated multiple federal laws by spending $43,000 for a soundproof booth connected to Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office, according to a new report.
A 2017 spending bill capped at $5,000 expenditures to “furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for, or make improvements for the office of a presidential appointee.” Any spending above that level would require notification to congressional appropriators. EPA did not send any advance notice to the appropriations committees in either chamber, the Government Accountability Office found, thereby violating the 2017 law. Additionally, because EPA “obligated appropriated funds in a manner specifically prohibited by law,” GAO said the agency also violated the Antideficiency Act.
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The auditors called on EPA to “report its Antideficiency Act violation as required by law.” Employees found to have violated the law are subject to administrative punishment, such as suspension without pay or firing, and may be subject to fines, imprisonment or both.
"EPA is addressing GAO’s concern with regard to congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week,” said Liz Bowman, an EPA spokeswoman.
EPA spent about $25,000 on the privacy booth and an additional $18,000 on costs associated with modifying a storage closet connected to Pruitt’s office to accommodate it. The agency has defended the booth as necessary for Pruitt to have confidential conversations. The probe into the spending was originally being handled by EPA’s inspector general, but the watchdog subsequently passed it on to GAO.
The auditors said EPA clearly spent in excess of $5,000 and the space in question was certainly a part of Pruitt’s office. The only question, therefore, was whether the booth installation met the definition of using funds to “furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for or make improvements for” the administrator’s office. In a letter to GAO, EPA argued the booth was not furnishing the office but merely equipment necessary for Pruitt to do his job.
The “privacy booth is 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,” the agency said in a letter to GAO.
GAO disagreed, saying even by that logic, EPA should have notified Congress. EPA officials said Congress was intending to restrict only an “aesthetic improvement” to appointees’ offices, but GAO said they were selectively reading the statute.
The auditors did not make a determination on the propriety of the soundproof booth purchase, even saying that had EPA notified Congress there would have been no issue with the spending.
“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 said. “EPA’s failure to make the necessary notification is the only subject of this opinion. However, we recognize the requirement to protect classified material and the need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line when handling such information in the course of conducting official agency business.”
GAO’s finding could be cause for concern for other Trump administration officials. Housing and Urban Development Department Secretary Ben Carson and Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke have both come under fire for their high spending on office redecoration and modification, though it is unclear if they notified Congress as required.