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EPA chief's silent booth broke law, agency finds

EPA chief's silent booth broke law, agency finds

The letter doesn't make any judgment about the appropriateness of the actions or say whether Pruitt knew about them.

As pressure on EPA chief Scott Pruitt to resign mounts amid his ever-growing list of scandals, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded on Monday that the $43,000 soundproof phone booth Pruitt had installed in his office a year ago at the taxpayer's expense violated federal spending laws.

GAO stressed it was not ruling on whether Pruitt's phone booth itself broke the law, rather that EPA's failure to notify Congress about its spending above the $5,000 limit was the breach. Before spending more than $5,000 on office equipment, the agency must alert Congress.

EPA officials tried to argue the booth didn't violate the code because it was a functional matter and not a decorative upgrade.

Last week, Democratic lawmakers sent letters to both Pruitt and President Trump with new allegations from a former aide to Pruitt, Kevin Chmielewski, who told lawmakers Pruitt purchased bulletproof vests and weapons in the name of enhanced security, and based his travel plans on incurring frequent flyer miles or visiting his home state of Oklahoma.

"EPA's statements place the privacy booth squarely within the meaning of "furnish", as the booth equipped the office with something that EPA asserts it needed". Installing the booth - a new concrete floor, paint work and other infrastructure - cost over $18,000 more.

According to EPA, the privacy booth "not only enables the Administrator to make and receive phone calls to discuss sensitive information, but it also enables him to use this area to make and receive classified telephone calls (up to the top secret level) for the objective of conducting agency business".

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EPA in the past has run up against GAO legal opinions.

The agency said it's working to notify Congress about the expenses, but justified its decision to install the soundproof box.

"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 wrote in its letter.

Though Congressional notification was the only subject of the brief, GAO also remarked that EPA already has two Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs)-installations through which classified information can be shared.

Pruitt appears to be fixated with privacy inside his Washington, D.C., office.

The Associated Press first reported in December that EPA also spent about $9,000 for an outside contractor to sweep Pruitt's office for secret listening devices and installed biometric locks. The EPA shelled out another $3,000 in taxpayer dollars to have his office combed for listening devices. But the GAO's finding magnifies the political problems Pruitt is creating for an administration which vows zero tolerance for corruption and self-dealing.


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