E.P.A. Chief’s $43,000 Phone Booth Broke the Law, Congressional Auditors Say:

E.P.A. Chief’s $43,000 Phone Booth Broke the Law, Congressional Auditors Say:

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency violated the law when it installed a soundproof phone booth for the administrator, Scott Pruitt, at a cost of roughly $43,000, a congressional watchdog agency ruled on Monday.

The congressional agency, the Government Accountability Office, said in a report that the E.P.A. had not notified Congress as required before spending more than $5,000 on office equipment.

In a separate report Monday, the E.P.A.’s inspector general published records showing that Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff signed off on hires and thousands of dollars in raises for political appointees under a provision of a clean water law. That report was part of an ongoing audit of salaries and hiring practices at the agency.

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 about $24,000 for the phone booth and more than $20,000 to install a drop ceiling, remove closed-circuit television equipment and pour 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 the violations of two laws: the Antideficiency Act, which is designed to prevent spending that has not been budgeted, and the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which limits the amount political appointees may spend on office item to $5,000.

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.

The G.A.O. reports its findings to Congress but has little enforcement power of its own.

Senator Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat 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.”

Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the E.P.A., also criticized the agency, while not identifying Mr. Pruitt by name.

“It is critical that E.P.A. and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer dollars,” Senator Barrasso said in a statement. “E.P.A. must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.”

Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for the E.P.A., said in a statement, “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.”

The G.A.O. report noted that federal laws would not have blocked E.P.A. from purchasing the phone booth, and Ms. Bowman said that the accountability office had recognized the need for employees to have access to secure telephone lines to handle sensitive information.

The other report Monday, from the E.P.A.’s own inspector general, an independent office within agency, did not draw any conclusions as to whether Mr. Pruitt or his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, violated laws in using the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 to hire officials and award raises.

Rather, it provided more than 80 pages of “requests for personnel action” showing that Mr. Jackson, often with the signed authorization of Mr. Pruitt, handled most of the paperwork associated with the employees.

Arthur A. Elkins Jr., the E.P.A. Inspector General, indicated that more may be coming from his office regarding agency hiring practices, and said the report Monday was merely to alert officials to “certain factual information while our audit continues.”

A spokesman for the E.P.A., Jahan Wilcox, said in a statement that Mr. Pruitt did not determine his appointee’s salaries or raises. That, he said, is done by the E.P.A. chief of staff, White House liaison, and career human resource officials.

“Salaries are based on work history, and any increases are due to either new and additional responsibilities or promotions,” Mr. Wilcox said. “Salary determinations are made to avoid disparities among positions of equivalent or similar responsibilities, to the extent possible.”

He said that the agency would continue to provide information to the inspector general for any further inquiries.

The use of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 to hire political appointees and grant raises to two Oklahoma aides has, in particular, drawn the ire of Democrats. According to documents provided under the Freedom of Information Act to American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group, Mr. Pruitt used the law to bring on board at least 20 political appointees, known as “administratively determined” hires.

Among those hires were Sarah Greenwalt, who served as general counsel for Mr. Pruitt when he served as attorney general of Oklahoma, and Millan Hupp, who was a financial and political consultant for Mr. Pruitt’s political action committees in Oklahoma.

The E.P.A. has acknowledged that it asked for Ms. Greenwalt’s salary to be raised from $107,435 to $164,200, and for Ms. Hupp’s to be raised from $86,460 to $114,590, under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

In an interview on April 4 with Fox News, Mr. Pruitt denied responsibility for the raises. “I found out this yesterday and I corrected the action, and we are in the process of finding out how it took place and correcting it,” he said.

The next day, Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, issued a statement taking responsibility for the raises and saying that Mr. Pruitt “had zero knowledge of the amount of the raises, nor the process by which they transpired.”

Mr. Pruitt is not the first E.P.A. administrator to hire under the drinking water law. Agencies are allowed to fill up to 30 administratively determined positions and that authority has been used by both President Barack Obama and the elder President George Bush. Critics, however, said it was unusual to use the authority to hire deputy assistant administrators as Mr. Pruitt has.

Also on Monday, the inspector general for the Department of Interior reviewed costs associated with charter flights that Secretary Ryan Zinke took and found no violation of laws.

But investigators concluded that a $12,377 charter flight the secretary took in June to his home state of Montana from Las Vegas, where he was speaking to a hockey team, might have been avoided if agency employees had worked with the hockey team to better accommodate the secretary’s schedule.

Nonetheless, Mr. Zinke “generally followed relevant law, policy, rules and regulations” when he chartered the flight, auditors said.

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