Pruitt deflects blame for spending on secure phone booth, salary increases

Even Republicans took issue with spending $43,000 on a private communications system.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's environment subcommittee on Capitol Hill on April 26, 2018. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's environment subcommittee on Capitol Hill on April 26, 2018. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt placed the blame on senior staff members for spending $43,000 on a secure phone booth inside his office at the agency’s headquarters.

Speaking at a packed House committee hearing on Thursday, Pruitt told lawmakers that he instructed staffers to figure out a way to create a secure communications system in his private office. But the administrator emphasized that he did not approve spending $43,000 on the the secure phone booth.

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“I gave direction to my staff to address that and out of that came a $43,000 expenditure that I did not approve. That is something that should not have occurred,” Pruitt told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment, the first of two hearings he appeared at on Thursday. “Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through.”

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA), who pressed Pruitt on his spending habits, said he found it a “bit odd” that Pruitt did not know such a large amount was being spent on the phone booth. “If something happens in my office, especially to the degree of $43,000, I would know about it before, during, and after.”

Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that concluded the EPA violated federal law in spending $43,000 to install the private phone booth in Pruitt’s office by failing to notify Congress that it was exceeding the $5,000 limit for agency heads to furnish, redecorate, or otherwise make improvements to their offices.

A common theme throughout the day of hearings was that according to the EPA administrator, other people, not Pruitt, were responsible for the costly expenditures. Pruitt also has said he gave his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, authority to approve salary increases for two of his close aides. But the EPA chief explained, “I was not aware of the amount.”

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Later in the day, Pruitt testified before another congressional panel, the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment, and related agencies, where he also was grilled on his spending habits. “I simply requested a secure line in my office,” Pruitt told the committee about the phone booth.

From using taxpayer money for first-class flights to enjoying a 20-member security detail, Pruitt has come under attack for his lavish spending. Financial documents obtained by the Associated Press revealed that over his first year as administrator, Pruitt spent almost $3 million on the security team. Pruitt also spent more than $105,000 on first-class flights in his first year on the job, according to records EPA provided to the House Oversight Committee.

At the House appropriations subcommittee hearing, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, told Pruitt that publicly blaming EPA staff for controversial expenditures “seems to be a pattern” for him.

McCollum concluded: “Mr. Pruitt, I think it’s time that you resign.”

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) was one of the few Republicans to confront Pruitt about his spending habits. During the morning hearing before the House environment subcommittee, Lance said installation of the phone booth was unnecessary, given that the EPA headquarters building has two other sensitive compartmented information facilities, or SCIFs.

Lance said former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush, told him that she did not see a need for an enhanced communications system in her private office during her tenure at the agency.

“I do not think it is appropriate,” Lance said. “I think it was a waste of funds.”

For the salary increases, the EPA’s inspector general’s office issued an interim report last week that found agency staff went behind the backs of White House officials who had objected to at least two of the salary increases.

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Under questioning from Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) at the morning hearing, Pruitt acknowledged that he did have some knowledge of the raises. The statement contradicted what he had told Fox News earlier this month when he said: “I did not know that they got the pay raises until yesterday.”

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.

Later in the hearing, Pruitt said, “I was aware of one of those individuals” who was receiving a raise, in response to questions from Rep. Ryan Costello (R-IL), another Republican member of the environment subcommittee who criticized Pruitt’s spending decisions.