GAO General Counsel Thomas Armstrong determined that EPA's purchase of the booth violated federal law prohibiting agencies from spending more than $5,000 for redecorating, furnishings or other improvements to the offices of presidential appointees without informing Congress. Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee sent a letter Tuesday to the EPA's inspector general asking the office to probe the matter. In Minoli's letter, EPA told GAO that the booth "not only enables the Administrator to make and receive phone calls to discuss sensitive information, but it also enables him to use this area to make and receive classified telephone calls (up to the top secret level) for the goal of conducting agency business".
The Associated Press first reported in December that EPA also spent about $9,000 for an outside contractor to sweep Pruitt's office for secret listening devices and installed biometric locks. Pruitt's office did not notify Congress about the excessive spending, the GAO contends, in violation of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act.
While the agency did turn over documents last month detailing almost $68,000 in previously undisclosed travel costs for Pruitt during the seven months leading up to February, Gowdy said EPA officials have failed to produce the security waivers that Pruitt used to justify his purchase of premium tickets at taxpayer expense.
EPA in the past has run up against GAO legal opinions.
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 EPA could, however, face administrative penalties under the Antideficiency Act.
According to the OIG's "management alert", which made no conclusions about the hiring, EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson used an obscure provision in the statute to authorize significant salary raises for certain EPA employees after the White House had refused to approve the increases. The GAO declined to rule on the phone booth's necessity, but said its construction qualified as a furnishing under federal statute, meaning the "EPA was required to notify the appropriations committees of its proposed obligation".
"It's necessary for me to be able to do my job", he told lawmakers.
Republican President Donald Trump has said he supports Pruitt, who has carried out his policy goals of slashing regulations on the oil, natural gas and coal industries, but will look into allegations about ethics lapses.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has come under fire for enlisting his wife Candy's input in upgrading his office, a move that prompted protests from the department's chief administrative officer at the time, Helen Foster.