Published: Tue, April 17, 2018
Global | By Marsha Munoz

Watchdog: EPA broke law with $43K phone booth

Watchdog: EPA broke law with $43K phone booth

This story was updated at 1:55 p.m. EDT.

A government watchdog agency concluded that the Environmental Protection Agency violated federal law in spending more than $43,000 to install a private phone booth in EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's office, according to a report obtained by ABC News.

The booth itself cost $24,570.

In this case, EPA principal general counsel Kevin Minoli said, the privacy booth wasn't created to "enhance the value of existing office space or to make it better". The only question, therefore, was whether the booth installation met the definition of using funds to "furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for or make improvements for" the administrator's office.

GAO disagreed with EPA's interpretation of the law.

"The GAO letter "recognized the ... need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line" when handling sensitive information".

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When asked about the investigation, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said: "We have responded to Chairman Gowdy's inquiries and we will continue to work with him".

The EPA spent more than $43,000 to install a "secure phone booth" in Pruitt's office previous year, according to agency documents obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-partisan and non-profit watchdog group. Beyond that, the agency spent another almost $20,000 on concrete floor leveling, ceiling installation, painting and removal of closed-circuit television equipment to accommodate its installation. The agency has defended the booth as necessary for Pruitt to have confidential conversations.

The agency also said that under its guidelines, a classified phone can not be put on an office desk or in a conference room.

Gowdy gave an April 27 deadline for response from EPA. The author of the opinion, GAO General Counsel Thomas Armstrong, does not say whether the $43,000 booth was the best way to provide a secure phone line for Pruitt.

Pruitt's continued leadership of the environmental agency has been under fire since the revelation two weeks ago that he lived in a bargain-priced Capitol Hill condo tied to a fossil fuels lobbyist.

EPA representatives said they were cooperating with the request.

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EPA chief Scott Pruitt's ethics problems keep piling up.

"An illegal privacy booth to conduct secret discussions with his polluter friends does nothing to help our health or environment", Udall said Monday.

Statements from environmental groups also poured in, with several calling on Pruitt to leave the agency.

Last week, a group of House and Senate Democrats published a detailed list of allegations suggesting mismanagement and lavish spending by Pruitt and his office.

"Because EPA did not comply with the notification requirement, the funds were not legally available at the time EPA incurred the obligation", the GAO found. "EPA should report its Antideficiency Act violation as required by law".

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