The Environmental Protection Agency broke the law because it failed to notify Congress when it bought a sound proof phone booth for administrator Scott Pruitt.
Ultimately, the installation violated two laws - the Antideficiency Act, which should prevent unbudgeted spending, as well as the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which places the $5,000 limit on political appointees spending on any one office item.
The agency violated the law by using more than $5,000 of fiscal 2017 appropriated funds for an unintended goal without giving lawmakers advance notice, GAO investigators wrote in a report released Monday.
The auditors did not make a determination on the propriety of the soundproof booth purchase, even saying that had EPA notified Congress there would have been no issue with the spending.
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.
The GAO found the law is more broad and applies to changes like the booth, which provides "a new, practical addition to the 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", EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an email.
"Because EPA did not comply with the notification requirement, the funds were not legally available at the time EPA incurred the obligation", GAO said. 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.
The EPA had argued that the nearly $25,000 customized phone booth - which required painting, concrete and electrical work totaling more than $18,000 to reconfigure the small closet area where it was placed - was not part of a redecoration of Pruitt's office and should not be subject to the $5,000 cap.
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The agency also said that under its guidelines, a classified phone can not be put on an office desk or in a conference room.
In its explanation to the GAO included in the report, the EPA equated the booth to other necessary office supplies and argued it was needed to "support specific mission requirements" and allow Pruitt to carry out agency business "without concern that classified, deliberative, privileged, or sensitive information might inadvertently be disclosed to those who are not meant to receive such information".
Kevin Chmielewski, formerly Pruitt's deputy chief of staff for operations, told congressional investigators last week that although Jackson signed off on the raises, Pruitt knew about the entire process.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) asked the watchdog agency to look into the soundproof booth, which she said "wasn't just unnecessary and wasteful, but actually illegal". 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).
Section 710 prohibits federal agencies from obligating more than $5,000 to furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for, or make improvements for the office of a presidential appointee without prior notification to the appropriations committees. The lawmakers had requested the GAO review.
EPA Chief of Workers Ryan Jackson.
EPA chief Scott Pruitt's ethics problems keep piling up.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, who has previously backed Pruitt, said the EPA must give "a full public accounting" of the expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.
"With each passing day, Pruitt has created more headaches for Donald Trump with his mounting list of ethical and now legal violations. He must fire him immediately".
Republicans also expressed concerns in response to the GAO ruling released today. However, " The Associated Press has identified a few of them as aides to Pruitt whom he brought with him from Oklahoma, in which he functioned as the attorney common of their state.