This story was updated at 1:55 p.m. EDT.
The Government Accountability Office said today that EPA violated federal law by failing to tell lawmakers when it installed a secure phone booth in Administrator Scott Pruitt's office.
The deal cost EPA about $43,000, including a nearly $25,000 contract with a specialty acoustics company for the soundproof booth's purchase, delivery and assembly.
In an eight-page decision, the congressional watchdog concluded that EPA breached appropriations law — specifically the governmentwide $5,000 spending cap on office redecoration for political appointees — by not giving advance notice to Congress' appropriations committees. In addition, GAO found that since EPA spent its appropriated funds in a way banned by the law, it also broke the Antideficiency Act and needs to report its violation to Congress and the president.
The GAO decision quotes often from an EPA March 23 letter by Kevin Minoli, the agency’s principal deputy general counsel, that pushes back on its ruling.
EPA argued Pruitt's phone booth "serves a functional purpose" by allowing the administrator to carry out agency business and compared it to other office supplies, like high-speed copiers or computers. Thus, the booth was a practical addition to the administrator's office and did not violate the specific appropriations law provision since it was not "an aesthetic improvement" contemplated by that measure, according to the agency.
GAO disagreed with EPA's interpretation of the law. The agency will be sending the required information to lawmakers this week related to Pruitt's phone booth.
"The GAO letter 'recognized the … need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line' when handling sensitive information. EPA is addressing GAO's concern, with regard to congressional notification about this expense and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week," EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said.
Without advance notice to lawmakers, EPA obligated $43,239 from its fiscal 2017 environmental programs and management account to install the soundproof privacy booth in Pruitt's office, according to the GAO decision. Along with the $24,570 contract for the actual booth, that sum included $7,978 to remove closed-circuit television cameras, $3,470 for concrete floor leveling, $3,360.97 to install a drop ceiling, $3,350 for patchwork and painting, and $509.71 for cabling and wiring.
EPA told GAO the booth is located in a former storage closet in Pruitt's office.
The agency also said that under its guidelines, a classified phone cannot be put on an office desk or in a conference room. In Minoli's letter, EPA told GAO that the 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 purpose of conducting agency business."
In a congressional hearing last December, Pruitt described the booth as "a secure phone line" that he uses for sensitive talks, including with the White House (E&E News PM, Dec. 7, 2017).
But GAO noted the agency didn't say whether the booth was certified as a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF. Former EPA officials told E&E News that the agency already has a SCIF in the basement of its Washington headquarters, which sees little use given the agency doesn't deal often with classified information (Greenwire, Sept. 27, 2017).
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.
"GAO recognizes the requirement to protect classified material and draws 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. EPA's failure to comply with a governmentwide statutory requirement that an agency notify the appropriations committees before it spends more than $5,000 for the office of a Presidential appointee is the only legal issue addressed in this opinion," said Julie Matta, GAO's managing associate general counsel, in a statement.
'An illegal privacy booth'
Democrats on Capitol Hill had requested the legal opinion from GAO on Pruitt's phone. They blasted the EPA chief after the decision was released today.
"Scott Pruitt likes to talk about returning the EPA to the rule of law, but it turns out he's better at breaking it than following it. ... An illegal privacy booth to conduct secret discussions with his polluter friends does nothing to help our health or environment," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees EPA.
Statements from environmental groups also poured in, with several calling on Pruitt to leave the agency.
"With each passing day, Pruitt has created more headaches for Donald Trump with his mounting list of ethical and now legal violations. Donald Trump shouldn't wait to see what ethical norm or law Pruitt breaks next. He must fire him immediately," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.
Republicans also expressed concerns in response to the GAO ruling released today. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said EPA needs to make "a full public accounting" of its spending on Pruitt's phone booth.
"It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer dollars. EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law," Barrasso said.
EPA in the past has run up against GAO legal opinions.
In December 2015, the congressional watchdog found that the agency had violated federal restrictions on lobbying and propaganda in its social media campaign on behalf of the Waters of the U.S. rule (E&E News PM, Dec. 14, 2015). Pruitt has since sought to roll back that regulation at the agency.