WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency violated the law when it installed a $43,000 soundproof phone booth for the administrator, Scott Pruitt, a congressional watchdog agency found.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report on Monday that the E.P.A. was required to notify Congress before spending more than $5,000 on office equipment or decorations.
The E.P.A. said the secure phone booth was necessary “to make and receive phone calls and to discuss sensitive information, including classified telephone calls up to the top secret level.” The agency paid $23,000 for the phone booth and another $25,000 install a drop ceiling, remove closed-circuit television equipment and pour more concrete around the booth, according to agency contracts.
The G.A.O. said it was not taking a position on whether or not the installation of the privacy booth was necessary, but was focusing only on whether the agency violated the Antideficiency Act, which is designed to prevent the spending of money that has not been budgeted. Auditors wrote that the E.P.A.’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” was a violation of the law and should be reported to Congress and the president.
In an eight-page letter to lawmakers, Thomas H. Armstrong, the G.A.O.’s general counsel, said the agency did not send advance notice to Congress when it paid $43,238.68 from its Environmental Programs and Management budget to pay for the installation of the soundproof booth.
Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, who requested the investigation along with three other members of Congress, said Mr. Pruitt was “blatantly breaking laws and ethics rules that protect taxpayers from government waste, fraud and abuse in order to help himself to perks and special favors.”
Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for the E.P.A., said in a statement that the accountability office recognized the need for employees to have access to secure telephone lines to handle sensitive information. “E.P.A. is addressing G.A.O.’s concern, with regard to Congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week,” she said.
The G.A.O. report noted that federal laws would not have blocked E.P.A. from purchasing the phone booth.
Mr. Pruitt currently faces several congressional and inspector-general investigations into his first-class travel, the size and cost of his security detail, and for giving raises to two Oklahoma aides under a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Separately, an E.P.A. inspector general’s report on his practice of hiring and giving raises under that act is due this afternoon.