Soundproof phone booth for EPA head Pruitt needed Congress approval, watchdog says

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violated the law when it approved a $43,000 US soundproof phone booth last year for the office of embattled Administrator Scott Pruitt, a congressional watchdog unit said Monday.

Trump has stuck with Scott Pruitt despite questions over spending, habits

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies Jan. 30 at a Senate committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pruitt has faced criticism from even some top Republicans over expenses incurred since taking over as head of the EPA. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violated the law when it approved a $43,000 US soundproof phone booth last year for the office of embattled Administrator Scott Pruitt, a congressional watchdog unit said Monday.

The Government Accountability Office said the EPA violated the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which prohibits an agency from obligating more than $5,000 in federal funds to furnish, redecorate or make improvements in the office of a presidential appointee without first notifying appropriations committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

The EPA also violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies from incurring expenses in excess of funds available in appropriations, the GAO said.

Liz Bowman, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency was "addressing GAO's concern, with regard to congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week."

The privacy booth, which Pruitt had told lawmakers in a hearing was needed to conduct agency business, was built in a spot of a former storage closet in administrator's office.

Democrat derides 'swamp emperor' Pruitt

The GAO had been asked to investigate the matter by Democratic lawmakers including U.S. Senators Tom Carper and Tom Udall.

"An illegal privacy booth to conduct secret discussions with his polluter friends does nothing to help our health or environment," Udall said Monday. "Scott Pruitt is behaving like swamp emperor rather than EPA administrator — he has shown a shocking lack of regard for public health and safety, ethics and fairness. He has been a disaster, and it's past time for him to go."

Pruitt has been under fire from Republican and Democratic lawmakers for expensive travel and other expenses he has incurred. Last week, Democratic lawmakers asked him to provide documents about ethics issues they said were revealed to them by a former agency official, including spending on bulletproof vests, guns and a contract with an Italian security service.

Also last week, fellow Republican Trey Gowdy, head of the oversight committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, asked Pruitt for more documents for his probe into the administrator's first-class air travel and leasing of a room in a Washington, D.C., condo for $50 a night. The condo was owned by the wife of a prominent lobbyist who had clients who have had business before the EPA.

President Donald Trump has said he supports Pruitt, who has carried out Trump's policy goals of slashing regulations on the oil, natural gas and coal industries, but will look into allegations about ethics lapses.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Questions over improper travel expenses led to the resignation of Trump's first health secretary, Tom Price, while housing secretary Ben Carson has faced inquiry over the purchase of a $31,000 dining set for his office. David Shulkin, who stepped down as the head of veterans affairs, has agreed to reimburse the government more than $4,000 after it was determined he improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets while travelling with his wife to Europe at the expense of taxpayers.

With files from CBC News

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