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Scott Pruitt broke the law with $43,000 phone booth, investigators find

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Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt testifies on Jan. 18, 2017, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. (Riccardo Savi/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The embattled chief of the Environmental Protection Agency broke federal law when he spent more than $43,000 of agency funds to install a soundproof telephone booth in his office, federal investigators have found.

The Government Accountability Office concluded that Scott Pruitt violated the Antideficiency Act by not informing Congress before he authorized the construction of the booth, which Pruitt said was needed to deter eavesdroppers. The violation subjects Pruitt to a range of punishments that could include suspension or even dismissal.

“Because EPA used its appropriations in a manner specifically prohibited by law, EPA violated the Antideficiency Act,” said the GAO report, which was released Monday.

President Donald Trump, who continues to back Pruitt as spending scandals swirl around him, has given little sign he is looking to discipline his environmental chief. But the GAO’s finding magnifies the political problems Pruitt is creating for an administration which vows zero tolerance for corruption and self-dealing.

The $43,000 phone booth was only one of several controversial spending decisions by Pruitt, who spent more than $100,000 on first-class travel, rented a bedroom at a rate far below market value from the wife of an energy lobbyist, and gave big raises to two aides that the White House refused to approve.

Investigators said such spending clearly falls in the category of needing congressional approval if it exceeds $5,000. It rejected the Pruitt’s argument that the approval was only necessary if the costs were related to aesthetic improvements.

The booth itself cost $24,570. Beyond that, the agency spent another nearly $20,000 on concrete floor leveling, ceiling installation, painting and removal of closed-circuit television equipment to accommodate its installation. Federal investigators did not opine on whether Pruitt needed such a booth. They just looked narrowly at whether he needed congressional sign-off, which they said he did.

The phone booth is not the only controversial move Pruitt made without first seeking approval. The federal government’s ethics chief this month scolded the agency head for not getting approval from ethics officers for his housing arrangement with the wife of an energy lobbyist until long after he had used the apartment. He called for further investigation into Pruitt’s spending and management. The agency’s inspector general has several of its own investigations open into Pruitt’s use of agency funds and alleged ethical lapses. Also looking into Pruitt is the House Oversight Committee, which has asked EPA for records on his travel and housing.

On “Fox News Sunday,” committee chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., mocked Pruitt’s rationale that he needed to fly first class in the past due to security concerns around potential confrontations with other fliers who disapprove of the administration’s policies. “The notion that I’ve got to fly first class because I don’t want people to be mean to me, you need to go into another line of work if you don’t want people to be mean to you,” Gowdy said. “Like maybe a monk.”

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