In an unusual management alert issued Monday, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins said his staff had reviewed personnel documents for six employees who were hired or had received raises under the Safe Drinking Water Act since Pruitt came to the agency previous year.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said the agency is "addressing GAO's concern, with regard to congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week".
The EPA did not immediately respond to request for comment; the organization had said that the phone booth should not be included as part of office decorations, a claim the GAO rebutted in its report.
But GAO noted the agency didn't say whether the booth was certified as a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF.
Under federal law, Presidential appointees are allotted $5,000 to decorate their offices, unless Congress is notified in advance about a higher level of spending. Thus, the booth was a practical addition to the administrator's office and did not violate the specific appropriations law provision since it was not "an aesthetic improvement" contemplated by that measure, according to the agency. According to Kevin Chmielewski, a senior EPA official who served as Pruitt's deputy chief of staff until he was put on unpaid administrative leave earlier this year, Pruitt apparently used his director of scheduling as his personal real estate agent, considered spending $100,000 a month on a private jet rental service, and told his staff to "find me something to do" in particular cities and countries that he wanted to visit for reasons apparently unrelated to his work at EPA. In its report, the GAO explicitly said it drew "no conclusions" about whether or not the privacy booth was necessary for secure communications.
The GAO had been asked to investigate the matter by Democratic lawmakers. They blasted the EPA chief after the decision was released today. But his chief of staff appears to have signed the forms "for Scott Pruitt", suggesting that he was acting with explicit or implicit permission. "An illegal privacy booth to conduct secret discussions with his polluter friends does nothing to help our health or environment", said Sen.
"EPA was required to notify the appropriations committees of its proposed obligation", the legal opinion stated.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, who is now investigating Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, had some harsh words for Pruitt's controversial travel habits.
Republicans also criticized Pruitt after the latest round of ethical violations. President Donald Trump has repeatedly backed Pruitt through the revelations - about expensive travel, a below-market-rate lease from an energy lobbyist, and raises given to aides against White House direction - calling him a "good man" who "is doing a great job!" Last week, a group of House and Senate Democrats published a detailed list of allegations suggesting mismanagement and lavish spending by Pruitt and his office. "EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law", Barrasso said.
"It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer dollars".
EPA in the past has run up against GAO legal opinions.