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The soundproof phone booth for the EPA’s Pruitt wasn’t legal

04/16/18 12:50 PM—UPDATED 04/16/18 01:22 PM

By Steve Benen

Despite the apparent lack of threats, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has apparently been preoccupied with his personal safety throughout much of his tenure. The New York Times  reported two weeks ago, for example, that a bulletproof vehicle and a bulletproof desk were among the items discussed for the far-right Oklahoman.

This fit into an amazing pattern. Pruitt, for example, has a massive, around-the-clock security detail. He’s spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on a professional sweep of his office searching for possible surveillance devices. He’s spent thousands more on first-class air travel, apparently afraid of the riff raff who fly coach. CNN reported that the EPA’s custodial staff is not allowed to enter Pruitt’s office on their own, and in the hallway around Pruitt’s office, “security employees check government IDs against a list of employees who are approved for access.”

But one purchase in particular has come to symbolize Pruitt’s paranoid excesses: he spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a soundproof phone booth for reasons that have never made any sense. The Washington Post  reported this morning that the purchase wasn’t quite legal.

The $43,000 soundproof phone booth that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt had installed in his office last year violated federal spending laws, the Government Accountability Office said Monday. In an eight-page letter to lawmakers, GAO general counsel Thomas H. Armstrong said the agency failed to notify lawmakers that it was exceeding the $5,000 limit for agency heads to furnish, redecorate or otherwise make improvements to their offices. In addition, Armstrong wrote, the agency also violated the federal Antideficiency Act, “because EPA obligated appropriated funds in a manner specifically prohibited by law.”

If the $43,000 price tag sounds higher than initial estimates, it’s because the original price didn’t include additional costs associated with making the booth fit in the closet where Pruitt wanted it.

By way of a defense, Pruitt and his team apparently told the GAO’s investigators that the soundproof phone booth was actually necessary because it allows Pruitt to “make and receive calls to discuss sensitive information … (up to the top secret level) for the purpose of conducting agency business.”

The trouble is, other EPA chiefs also made and received calls discussing sensitive information, but none of them needed a soundproof phone booth. What’s more, in the event of a crisis, the EPA already has a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), where officials can review and discuss classified materials.

It’s probably why the GAO’s investigators rejected the explanation for Pruitt’s booth.

What happens now isn’t altogether clear, though I might offer a suggestion to Scott Pruitt: if one of your corporate lobbyist pals offers to pick up the tab for the soundproof phone booth, don’t accept the money.

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