Scott Pruitt

Government Watchdog Says Pruitt's $43,000 Phone Booth Broke the Law

Pruitt's recurring waste of taxpayer money undermines his laudable regulatory reforms.


Photo by Eric Boehm

A soundproof phone booth built for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt cost more than $43,000 and circumvented federal rules for office renovations, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In an eight-page letter to congressional Democrats, who had requested a review of Pruitt's phone booth project after reports of it surfaced in the press, GAO General Counsel Thomas Armstrong wrote that the EPA violated two federal laws by failing to notify Congress before spending the money and by using those funds in a manner prohibited by law. The second violation is a function of the first—because the agency did not notify Congress, the funds used to build the phone booth were not legally "available" when the EPA used them.

The bigger question might be why Pruitt needed a phone booth that costs as much as a brand new BMW.

For comparison sake, there is a soundproof booth at the Reason office, used not for the transmission of confidential government secrets but for more mundane things, like recording podcasts and conducting interviews. Something like that costs about $5,000 to build.

That amount, incidentally, is exactly how much federal agencies like the EPA are allowed to spend "to furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for, or make improvements for the office of a presidential appointee" without notifying Congress. Spending above that threshold requires notifying Congress' two appropriations committees.

In a response to the GAO, Pruitt's office maintains that those rules do not apply to the construction of the phone booth because "the purpose of the $5,000 redecorating limitation is to ensure that Congress is aware of any funds (above $5,000) that are being spent for items to accommodate the individual preferences of the appointee, rather than for items to conduct official agency business."

This, the GAO concludes, is "inconsistent" with the rules. But the real kicker is that there's nothing in the law forbidding the use of $43,000 to build, say, a sound-proof phone booth. All Pruitt had to do was notify the appropriations committees!

As with so many things, it's the attempted cover-up that makes this a bigger story than it otherwise would have been—well, that, and the ongoing drip, drip of stories involving Pruitt's housing situation, his use of four official email addresses, his pay raises to certain EPA officials without permission from the White House, and his habit of flying first class on the taxpayers' dime (supposedly in the name of security) while other high-ranking government officials get by just fine in coach.

Government officials are not angels and we should expect them to fail at times, but this is getting ridiculous.

To the extent that it's possible to separate Pruitt's wasteful managerial decisions from his policy agenda, it's wise to do so. Earlier this month, for example, Pruitt announced plans to roll-back Obama-era rules for vehicle emissions, removing a mandate that cars and pick-up trucks sold in the United States must average at least 50 miles per gallon by 2025. Those emissions standards made cars more expensive—effectively imposing a regressive tax that is particularly hard on low-income Americans—as well as lighter, and therefore potentially less safe. Car companies should make more fuel-efficient vehicles because consumers are demanding them, not because government is forcing them to do so.

Pruitt also loosened regulations on coal-fired power plants, let mining companies do more digging with less red tape, and placed some limits on the EPA's overaggressive enforcement of water regulations. Those moves will reduce electricity prices, create jobs in rural areas that badly need them, and better respect property rights.

But the price of those policy achievements should not be a complete disregard for how a federal agency spends money or the public's right to know about the workings of that agency. Those policies could be pursued by another person, someone committed to both a reasonably limited understanding of the EPA's mandate and a humble view his or her role in the government.

A phone booth that costs as much as a luxury sedan isn't a sign of humility. Neither is sticking taxpayers with first-class flight tabs. If Pruitt can't apply the same scrutiny to his personal expenses that he has applied to the EPA's overall mission, he should be replaced with someone who can.