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Government reports reveal new details about EPA pay raises and phone booth scandals

EPA inspector general highlights how agency used obscure provision to hand out salary increases.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt remains under fire for his alleged ethics violations and his focus on protecting polluting industries. CREDIT:  Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt remains under fire for his alleged ethics violations and his focus on protecting polluting industries. CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Two new reports released Monday are shining an even brighter light on Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and how he and his staff have flouted the law.

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded the EPA violated federal law in spending $43,000 to install a private phone booth in Pruitt’s office. Also on Monday, the EPA’s inspector general’s office issued an interim report that found Pruitt’s senior staff went behind the White House’s back to give employees major salary increases.

The two investigative reports were released at a time when President Trump appears to be sticking with Pruitt, despite 11 ongoing investigations into the administrator’s conduct. With the confirmation of Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, to the No. 2 position at the EPA, many agency observers have predicted Wheeler will be named acting administrator if Pruitt is forced out of his job.

EPA failed to notify Congress on secret booth

In its report, the GAO concluded the EPA did not comply with federal law because it failed to notify Congress that it was exceeding the $5,000 limit for agency heads to furnish, redecorate, or otherwise make improvements to their offices.

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“We conclude that EPA violated section 710 [of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act] when it obligated $42,238.68 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 GAO report said.

In a letter to the GAO explaining why it was installed, the EPA said the “privacy booth is analogous to other functional items an employee might require to perform his job duties such as high speed computer, high speed copier/scanner, or television.”

Environmental groups view the GAO report as more evidence of Pruitt choosing to spend huge sums of taxpayer money on himself as he seeks to dismantle the agency he leads.

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“With each passing day, Pruitt has created more headaches for Donald Trump with his mounting list of ethical and now legal violations. Donald Trump shouldn’t wait to see what ethical norm or law Pruitt breaks next. He must fire him immediately,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said Monday in a statement.

In addition to the privacy booth in Pruitt’s office, there are two other sensitive compartmented information facilities, or SCIFs, at the EPA’s headquarters building, the GAO report said. The other SCIFS, which were already in place when Pruitt started at the EPA, are located three floors down from his office. Each privacy area must be reserved to conduct an individual call, according to the report.

The EPA is addressing GAO’s concern “with regard to Congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week,” agency spokesperson Liz Bowman said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

The GAO also concluded the agency violated the federal Antideficiency Act, “because EPA obligated appropriated funds in a manner specifically prohibited by law.”

The Antideficiency Act bars federal employees from spending or otherwise allocating funds to be spent that exceed the allowed amount as approved by Congress.

Despite possible penalties such as large fines and up to two years in prison, violations continue to occur, with 197 violations reported since 2005 covering more than $9.66 billion, with a $1.6 billion expenditure being the largest instance, Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy at the American Action Forum, explained in a blog post.

According to the GAO, however, no federal employee has been prosecuted or convicted under this statute.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Monday that it is “critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer dollars.”

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“EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law,” Barrasso said.

Last week, though, Barrasso rejected a request from Democrats to hold a hearing on Pruitt’s ethical lapses and lavish spending.

Also on Monday, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) called on Congress to “initiative further oversight” of Pruitt and the EPA to get answers and hold those responsible for wrongdoing accountable.

EPA watchdog investigates salary increases

The EPA inspector general’s interim report, officially called a “management alert,” is part of the office’s ongoing probe of how the EPA has used its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to fill up to 30 “administratively determined” positions. Independent agencies, such as the EPA, are allowed to “administratively determine” salaries for certain categories of employees using a unique salary structure.

The inspector general’s probe into the salaries began in January; this was before it was revealed in recent weeks that the EPA had relied on the provision in the SWDA to give big raises to two top aides despite objections from the White House.

In authorizing the raises, the EPA effectively overruled White House officials who had objected to at least two of the salary increases. However, last week reports of an email suggested Pruitt personally signed off on a controversial pay raise for a favored aide last month is roiling the agency.

According to the inspector general’s report released Monday, documents show EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson authorized salary increases using the obscure provision of the SDWA. Last week, Jackson stated that he, not Pruitt, was responsible for the raises

The SDWA authority was intended to allow the EPA to bring on board engineers or scientists with subject matter expertise without any approval by the White House or Senate. It wasn’t designed for hiring cronies to fill political slots. It lets the EPA quickly add civil servants to its “cadre of senior management and scientific personnel,” as the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said in a 1977 floor speech.

The inspector general said it examined the personnel files for certain employees who occupied “administratively determined” positions created under the SWDA. Of the files examined, it identified six employees whose received salary increases

The report does not name any of the employees, only referring to them by letters — “Employees A-F.” But previous media reports allowed names to be connected to the salaries listed in the report.

One of the EPA employees who is believed to have received a big pay raise had not been named in recent news reports. Described as Pruitt’s “best friend” at the agency, Samantha Dravis, who recently resigned from her position as associate administrator of the EPA Office of Policy, received a raise, like two of her colleagues, worth “tens of thousands of dollars” according to Bloomberg.

It was previously reported that Sarah Greenwalt, a 30-year-old attorney working as Pruitt’s senior counsel, received a $56,000 raise and now makes $164,200. And 26-year old Millan Hupp, Pruitt’s scheduling director, got a $28,000 raise and now makes over $114,590.

Kevin Chmielewski, who provided details of Pruitt’s repeated acts of unethical behavior to the Senate, is listed as “Employee E” in the report, according to Nick Surgey, co-director of Documented, a government and corporate watchdog group. Chmielewski received a pay increase of 20.9 percent in 2017.

Three of the requests were signed and requested by Jackson and the other three were signed and requested by the agency’s acting deputy administrator, according to the report.

Jackson, a former Inhofe chief of staff, is looking to leave his job as alleged ethics violations continue to plague Pruitt, E&E News reported earlier this month.

Salary determinations for appointees are made by the EPA’s chief of staff, White House liaison, and career human resources officials, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

The EPA has been “responsive to the Inspector General’s inquiries concerning administratively determined positions and will continue to provide information for any future inquiries,” Wilcox said.

According to Politico, among those still working at the EPA last summer who were appointed under the special hiring authority were Nancy Beck, the deputy for EPA’s chemicals office; Byron Brown, Pruitt’s deputy chief of staff; and air adviser Mandy Gunasekara; and a number of public affairs officials. Their status may have changed since, Politico reported Monday.

Jackson said in a written statement last week that the salary increases have been reversed and future salary change requests will be submitted through the Office of Presidential Personnel for evaluation.

But the inspector general in the report said the EPA had not provided it with any evidence that the salary increases had been changed. “We requested from the agency any documentation indicating modifications to the salary of any of the employees subsequent to the personnel actions noted above,” the report said. “As of report issuance, the agency was unable to provide us with complete information or confirmation of any modifications.”