White House to probe Pruitt’s $43K secure phone booth

Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Erik Wasson
Bloomberg News

The White House budget office is investigating the EPA’s spending of $43,000 on a secure phone booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office.

"I’m not any happier about it than you are," Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told House lawmakers at hearing Wednesday.

The new inquiry comes just days after the General Accountability Office concluded the Environmental Protection Agency violated spending laws partly by failing to give Congress required advance notification about the planned purchase of the secure telecommunications booth. The GAO also said the EPA ran afoul of the Antideficiency Act, a measure prohibiting federal agencies from spending government funds in advance or in excess of an appropriation. Federal employees who violate the law are subject to suspension from duty without pay or removal from office, as well as fines and imprisonment.

If the Office of Management and Budget investigation concluded the Antideficiency Act was violated, Mulvaney said, "we would talk to the lawyers to figure out what the appropriate steps are."

Mulvaney said he doesn’t think anyone has ever faced criminal penalties for violating the act. That includes Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who drew fire for ordering $31,000 a customized hardwood dining set. Since Carson canceled that spending, Mulvaney said, the budget office did not launch a probe of the matter.

Representatives of the budget office did not immediately respond to an emailed request for more details.

The OMB probe marks another complication for the EPA and Pruitt, who already is under intense scrutiny for his unorthodox $50-per-night rental of a Capitol Hill bedroom from a lobbyist, frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma and what one former aide has described as a practice of retribution against employees who challenge the administrator.

The EPA says the phone booth purchase did not violate a prohibition on spending more than $5,000 to furnish or redecorate an agency head’s office because it was needed for official business. Funding for the project came from an environmental programs and management account – part of roughly $6 million spent annually on operation and maintenance for EPA headquarters.

The GAO’s report didn’t delve into whether the phone booth was appropriate or necessary; instead, it focused on whether the EPA should have notified Congress before spending the money as required under Section 710 of a government funding bill.