US Politics

Tone deaf? Trump’s environment chief illegally spent US$43,000 building soundproof booth in his office

EPA director Scott Pruitt had already come under fire for his big-spending ways

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 1:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 9:03pm

The US Environmental Protection Agency broke the law when it spent thousands of dollars building a soundproof booth in the office of its embattled director who was appointed by President Donald Trump, government investigators said Monday.

The non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined the agency was wrong when it spent US$43,000 on the project without first consulting Congress, a decision that heaps pressure on EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who is already in hot water over mounting ethics questions.

“EPA used its appropriations in a manner specifically prohibited by law,” GAO General Counsel Thomas Armstrong wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

Section 710 of a 2017 government appropriations act prohibits spending more than US$5,000 to furnish, redecorate or make improvements to an office of a presidential appointee without prior notification to Congress.

“We conclude that EPA violated Section 710 when it obligated US$43,238.68 for the installation of a soundproof privacy booth without providing advance notice to the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Senate,” the letter said.

Pruitt has been under fire for his lavish spending on first-class travel and his large security detail, for a discount he received on an apartment rental linked to a lobbying firm, and for allegedly sharply boosting salaries of close aides at the EPA.

With concern over the scandals growing, Trump recently reaffirmed support of his cabinet member, calling him a “good man” who has done a “great job” helming the EPA.

Several lawmakers have called for Pruitt to resign or be fired, including three Republicans. And environmentalists say he seems intent on weakening the agency he heads.

In a joint statement, congresswoman Betty McCollum and Senator Tom Udall, both Democrats, said “today’s GAO report is the latest proof of the rampant corruption and misconduct” at the EPA under Pruitt.

It isn’t just Pruitt under fire for his spending. The Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took an unnecessary charter flight in June after a speech he made there to a professional hockey team that cost taxpayers more than US$12,000.

The watchdog said in its report Monday that Zinke chartered a plane for US$12,375 from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana, in June that “could have been avoided.” The flight was linked to a controversial visit Zinke made to a National Hockey League team owned by a campaign donor.

“We determined that Zinke’s use of chartered flights in fiscal year (FY) 2017 generally followed relevant law, policy, rules, and regulations,” the report said.

“We found, however, that a $12,375 chartered flight he took in June 2017 after speaking at the developmental camp for the Golden Knights, a professional hockey team based in Las Vegas, Nevada, could have been avoided,” it added.

The report said the visit appeared unrelated to Zinke’s work as Interior chief, pointing out that a video recording of the speech showed he never mentioned his role at the department and focused mainly on his experience as a Navy SEAL.

The hockey team is owned by Bill Foley, a donor to Zinke’s past congressional campaigns.

The new reports come as the White House seeks to shake off persistent criticism by lawmakers of ethical lapses and wasteful spending by Trump’s senior officials – something that has helped fuel a high rate of turnover.

Health Secretary Tom Price was forced out and replaced last year after reports emerged of lavish spending on flights.

Additional reporting by Reuters