WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. government watchdogs rapped two members of President Donald Trumpâ€™s Cabinet on Monday over their spending last year, adding pressure on an administration already roiled by ethics complaints.
FILE PHOTO: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (EPA) Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/Files
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the Environmental Protection Agency violated the law when it approved a $43,000 soundproof phone booth last year for Administrator Scott Pruitt without seeking approval from lawmakers.
And the Department of Interiorâ€™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 $12,000.
The new reports come as the White House seeks to shake off persistent criticism by lawmakers of ethical lapses and wasteful spending by Trumpâ€™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.
Pruitt and Zinke are viewed as among Trumpâ€™s most productive Cabinet officials and key to the presidentâ€™s policy of expanding energy production and exports by slashing environmental regulations and opening federal lands to drilling and mining.
Trump has rebuffed recent calls by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to fire Pruitt, saying he is doing a â€œfantastic jobâ€� and is well-loved in â€œcoal and energy country.â€�
The Government Accountability Office said the EPA violated the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act with Pruittâ€™s privacy booth. The law prohibits an agency from obligating more than $5,000 in federal funds to furnish, redecorate or make improvements in the office of a presidential appointee without first notifying appropriations committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Liz Bowman, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency was â€œaddressing GAOâ€™s concern, with regard to Congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week.â€�
The booth, which Pruitt had told lawmakers in a hearing was needed to conduct agency business, was built in a former storage closet in the administratorâ€™s office.
The GAO had been asked to investigate the matter by Democratic lawmakers.
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican and the head of the Senate environment committee, said in a statement after the GAOâ€™s decision that Pruittâ€™s agency must give a â€œfull public accountingâ€� of the spending.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Also on Monday, the EPAâ€™s Office of Inspector General released documents showing EPAâ€™s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, had signed off on pay raises for three of Pruittâ€™s staff, including a raise of $29,000 to above $114,000 for his scheduling director, Millan Hupp.
Pruitt had originally recommended the raises but was denied by the White House. Jackson approved them using the authority granted under an obscure provision in a clean water law, the documents said.
Pruitt told Fox News this month that he had no knowledge of the raises.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not respond to a request for comment.
FLIGHT FROM LAS VEGAS
The Interior Departmentâ€™s watchdog said in its report Monday that Secretary Zinke chartered a plane for $12,375 from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana, in June that â€œcould have been avoided.â€� The flight was linked to a controversial visit Zinke made to a National Hockey League team owned by a campaign donor.
â€œWe determined that Zinkeâ€™s use of chartered flights in fiscal year (FY) 2017 generally followed relevant law, policy, rules, and regulations,â€� the report said.
â€œWe 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,â€� it added.
The report said the visit appeared unrelated to Zinkeâ€™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 Zinkeâ€™s past congressional campaigns.
Heather Swift, an Interior Department spokeswoman, said the report â€œsaid exactly what was known all along,â€� that the chartered aircraft followed relevant law and regulations. She did not comment on the watchdogâ€™s finding that the Las Vegas flight could have been avoided.
Zinke has also defended his use of noncommercial aircraft as necessary for reaching the remote parts of the country that his department oversees, and said past Interior secretaries have also relied on them.
Zinke has also taken heat for other types of spending, including the repair of doors in his office that cost thousands of dollars.
Reporting by Timothy Gardner; additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Jonathan Oatis