The Government Accountability Office declared Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the law by spending more than $43,000 on a soundproof booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office.
“[W]e conclude that EPA violated section 710 [of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act] when it obligated $43,238.68 for the installation of a soundproof privacy booth without providing advance notice to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Thomas H. Armstrong, the GAO’s general counsel, wrote. “Further, because EPA obligated appropriated funds in a manner specifically prohibited by law, we conclude that EPA violated the Antideficiency Act.”
The ruling came in response to several letters — from Reps. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Tom Udall (D-NM) — asking office to look into the expense. But they’re far from the only lawmakers asking tough questions about Pruitt’s behavior as EPA administrator.
The Washington Post first reported on the sound booth’s construction in September of last year. A spokesperson for the agency told the paper that it would serve as a SCIF — a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility — and that such secure rooms were “something which a number, if not all, Cabinet offices have and EPA needs to have updated.”
Still, agency employees told the paper that the EPA already had such a facility, and the Associated Press later reported that EPA employees rarely handle sensitive government secrets.
Pruitt told the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment in December that the expense was justified.
“Cabinet level officials need to have access to secure communications,” Pruitt said. “It’s necessary for me to be able to do my job.” Later that month, the EPA’s investigator general said his office would investigate the expense.
In March, the Post reported that, rather than costing around $25,000, as was previously reported, the secure booth would add up to $43,000 including installation and other expenses.
The GAO didn’t rule on the necessity of a secure room for Pruitt to make private calls, only the legality of the EPA’s paying for 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,” its letter to lawmakers said.
Still, the necessity of the booth is itself in question, and part of a larger pattern of expenses (and unfulfilled requests of Pruitt’s) that critics have said are excessive. The EPA has spent millions of dollars on an oversized security detail for Pruitt, for example, and has justified excessive travel costs by arguing that Pruitt needed to fly first class because he faced an “unprecedented” number of death threats. That claim is now severely in question, to say the least.
And an Associated Press reported earlier this month point to a pattern of retribution against EPA officials who spoke out against unusual spending requests, like a bulletproof desk or a $100,000 monthly private jet membership.
Behind it all: Pruitt’s chief of security, Nino Perrotta, who has, according to EPA employees, both authorized the extreme expenses and lashed out at those who question them.
Last week, lawmakers revealed that a former Trump campaign official and now-sidelined EPA staffer, Kevin Chmielewski, had alleged that Perrotta threatened him after he refused to retroactively authorize Pruitt’s decision to fly first class with an EPA staffer from Morocco to the United States.
Perotta “said that he was going to go to Mr. Chmielewski’s home and forcibly retrieve his EPA parking pass and that he ‘didn’t give a f—k who is on this call,’” Chmielewski said, according to lawmakers whose staffs had interviewed him.
Read the GAO’s opinion below:
This post has been updated.