Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s $43,000 secure phone booth would not have violated federal law had officials notified Congress of the project beforehand, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
GAO determined EPA violated the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act and the Antideficiency Act by not notifying Congress before it spent $43,000 on a secure phone booth so Pruitt could communicate privately with the White House.
Democratic lawmakers asked GAO to evaluate the legality of Pruitt’s secure booth, also known as a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF), which was unearthed in 2017 in records requests submitted by environmentalists.
However, EPA’s Office of General Counsel wrote back to GAO, he had “not identified any violation” of federal law from building the SCIF. Counsel Kevin Minoli argued federal law only required EPA to notify Congress if more than $5,000 will be spent to buy furniture or make improvements to the administrator’s office.
GAO disagreed with Minoli’s rationale, but recognized installing the booth was necessary for Pruitt to carry out his official duties.
“EPA’s failure to make the necessary notification is the only subject of this opinion,” GAO reported on Monday, noting the booth would have otherwise been permissible.
“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 found.
“After making the required notification, section 710 would have presented no bar to EPA’s activities,” GAO reported.
“The GAO letter ‘recognized the … need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line’ when handling sensitive information,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an emailed statement.
“EPA is addressing GAO’s concern, with regard to Congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week,” Bowman said.
Pruitt has come under fire for first-class travel, giving big pay raises to close aides and his living arrangements. EPA’s inspector general and Congress have launched investigations into Pruitt’s activities.
Conservatives, business leaders and Republicans have come out in defense of Pruitt, urging President Donald Trump to keep him in office. Conservatives say Pruitt’s departure would grind Trump’s energy agenda to a halt.
Democratic lawmakers used GAO’s findings to further hammer Pruitt. Democrats and environmental activists are calling for Pruitt’s removal from office.
“Now we know that the purchase wasn’t just unnecessary and wasteful, but actually illegal,” Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Worse still, this is part of a pattern of abuse of power, ethics violations, and disrespect for the rule of law by Administrator Pruitt.”