GAO still waiting on Pruitt phone booth report

By Kevin Bogardus | 09/24/2019 01:25 PM EDT

More than a year after a congressional watchdog scolded EPA over former Administrator Scott Pruitt’s secure phone booth, the agency still has not filed a report on the spending hiccup.

Former U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Former U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Scott Pruitt/Facebook

More than a year after a congressional watchdog scolded EPA over former Administrator Scott Pruitt’s secure phone booth, the agency still has not filed a report on the spending hiccup.

The Government Accountability Office said in a letter yesterday to Congress that EPA had not filed the report required under statute explaining the agency’s actions regarding the soundproof booth. In April last year, GAO concluded that EPA had violated appropriations law by not giving advance notice to lawmakers about the roughly $43,000 expense to install the privacy booth in the administrator’s office. That spending surpassed a $5,000 spending cap on office redecoration for political appointees and should have triggered notification of Capitol Hill.

"By law, agencies must immediately report Antideficiency Act violations to the President and to Congress, while transmitting a copy of the report to the Comptroller General," said the letter, which was signed by Thomas Armstrong, GAO’s general counsel. "This reporting requirement protects Congress’s power of the purse while promoting sound funds control throughout government."


GAO added that its records show EPA has not submitted the report.

"Our letter does not absolve the agency of its failure to report," said the letter, which was also copied to EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold, Deputy EPA Inspector General Charles Sheehan and Mark Paoletta, general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget.

"We send you this information because the reporting of ADA violations is critical to congressional oversight of executive use of public money and central to Congress’s constitutional power of the purse."

Asked why EPA had not filed the report yet, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said the agency found Pruitt’s phone booth was not in violation of appropriations law.

"EPA career ethics counsel found that the secure phone line was not in violation of Section 710 and that it was needed to handle sensitive agency business," Abboud said.

He referred E&E News to a letter sent to the congressional watchdog in March last year by Kevin Minoli, EPA’s then principal deputy general counsel.

EPA said in the letter that Pruitt’s phone booth was "an expense necessary" so the administrator could conduct agency business. In addition, the agency argued the privacy booth was not "an aesthetic improvement" contemplated by appropriations law but was akin to other office equipment, such as a computer or copier.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the top House appropriator overseeing EPA, said the agency must submit the report.

"This president and his administration clearly think they are above the law. EPA’s failure to report its Antideficiency Act violation to Congress is just another example of this pattern," McCollum said in a statement shared with E&E News.

"In this case, EPA must stop breaking the law and submit this report immediately. As an appropriator, I have the responsibility to hold them accountable for their actions, including through adjustments to the Administrator’s budget. This administration must understand there are consequences for blindly falling into step with Mr. Trump’s pattern of lawlessness."

Pruitt resigned from EPA in July 2018 under a crush of ethics allegations.

GAO has cleared the former EPA administrator in other spending matters.

The watchdog office issued an opinion in August 2018 that Pruitt’s appearance in a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association video talking up repeal of the controversial Waters of the United States rule didn’t violate appropriations law restrictions on using government funds for lobbying and propaganda.

GAO, however, did judge that the Obama-era EPA violated those prohibitions with the agency’s social media campaign in support of the Waters of the U.S. rule. EPA officials fiercely pushed back on that opinion (E&E News PM, Dec. 14, 2015).

Then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy later filed an Antideficiency Act report with the watchdog office disagreeing with its ruling.

"Because no violation has occurred, no disciplinary action has been taken and no further steps are required on the part of the EPA," McCarthy said.

Other agencies during the Trump administration have tangled with GAO.

Earlier this month, the congressional watchdog said the Department of the Interior violated appropriations law when it used entry fees to keep national parks open during the partial government shutdown. Democrats have pressed the department to accept the ruling after Interior officials disagreed with the opinion (Greenwire, Sept. 9).