Watchdog reports galore: A number of key reports and internal emails released Monday shed new light on a number of ethical questions plaguing both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Interior Department.
Over at the Environmental Protection Agency…
GAO SAYS PRUITT’S SPENDING ON SOUNDPROOF BOOTH BROKE LAW: The Government Accountability Office ruled Monday that the EPA broke the law when it spent more than $43,000 on a soundproof privacy booth for Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGowdy mocks Pruitt’s travel spending: Maybe he should become ‘a monk’ instead Democrats promote second annual March for Science: Vote climate change deniers out Holder rips ‘rampant corruption’ in Trump Cabinet MORE.
The main issue: Any spending above $5,000 on furnishing or decorating an agency official’s office must be preceded by a notification to the Appropriations Committees in the House and the Senate, a step the EPA didn’t take.
Since the $5,000 cap was in the federal government spending bill passed last year, the action also violated the Antideficiency Act, a longstanding bill that prohibits federal agencies from spending money that hasn’t been appropriated, or spending it in a way Congress didn’t allow, GAO said in a letter to Democratic lawmakers who requested it.
The EPA argued to the GAO during the investigation that the installation of the booth was not a redecoration and therefore not subject to the $5,000 cap. The agency told the GAO that the booth “not only enables the Administrator to make and receive phone calls to discuss sensitive information, but it also enables him to use this area to make and receive classified telephone calls (up to the top secret level) for the purpose of conducting agency business,” according to the GAO’s report.
Nevertheless, the watchdog found that the EPA violated this statutory requirement and directed the EPA to report its violation to Congress and the president “as required by law.”
One GOP chairman thins Pruitt has some explaining to do: Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOvernight Energy: Former Pruitt aide alleges more wasteful spending, retaliation | Senate confirms EPA No. 2 | Zinke backs off big park fee increases Senate approves Trump’s pick for No. 2 at EPA Dems want to delay confirmation of Trump pick at EPA MORE (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, demanded that the EPA explain itself.
“It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending taxpayer dollars,” he said in a statement.
“EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.”
Democratic lawmakers who requested the report were quick to respond to the findings.
“Scott Pruitt likes to talk about returning the EPA to the rule of law, but it turns out he’s better at breaking it than following it,” Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Cybersecurity: Lawmakers press FBI chief on encryption | Cyber world flocks to RSA conference | Defense contractors face mounting cyber threats Pompeo faces difficult panel vote after grilling by Dems Senators ask FCC to probe Sinclair ‘news distortion operation’ MORE (D-N.M.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, said in a statement Monday.
“This is just one more example of how Scott Pruitt is blatantly breaking laws and ethics rules that protect taxpayers from government waste, fraud and abuse in order to help himself to perks and special favors — and taking deliberate steps to hide everything from Congress and taxpayers,” he said.
Why it matters: Monday’s report was one of the first government watchdog reports in a series that Democrats and Pruitt’s opponents have sought regarding numerous controversies during his time at the EPA.
To them, the report was a home run: A nonpartisan, official finding that Pruitt broke the law. It’s the kind of thing they would love to see more of.
But the report also has some important facts for Pruitt.
For one, the only mistake he and his staff made was not notifying Congress of the expenditure. If they had done that, there would be no problem with the booth — at least from an appropriations law standpoint.
Secondly, the GAO took care not to weigh in on whether Pruitt has a legitimate security need for the booth, despite the presence of security communications facilities elsewhere in the EPA building.
“We draw no conclusions regarding whether the installation of the privacy booth was the only, or the best, way for EPA to provide a secure telephone line for the Administrator,” the watchdog agency said.
IG CONFIRMS PRUITT’S CHIEF OF STAFF GAVE RAISES: The EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) came out with its own report Monday, a brief “management alert” on the use of a special hiring method to hire EPA staffers or give them raises under Pruitt’s leadership.
The report confirmed that Pruitt Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson signed off on the raises, as he has previously said.
But Jackson’s signatures did say “for Scott Pruitt” on them, implying that Pruitt was aware of the raises and approved of them.
The OIG’s report doesn’t identify the employees who got the raises. But based on the details in the report, two of them appear to be Pruitt’s scheduling director Millan Hupp and senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt, and the EPA declined to identify the third one.
The Atlantic first reported on the Hupp and Greenwalt raises earlier this month.
Jackson increased the aides’ pay using a special authority the EPA has under the Safe Drinking Water Act. But tha came after the White House rejected the EPA’s request to make the raises through the normal procedure for political appointees.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the raises followed standard agency procedures.
“Salary determinations for appointees are made by EPA’s chief of staff, White House liaison, and career human resources officials,” he said in a Monday statement.
“Salaries are based on work history; and, any increases are due to either new and additional responsibilities or promotions. Salary determinations are made to avoid disparities among positions of equivalent or similar responsibilities, to the extent possible.”
Over at the Interior Department…
INSPECTOR GENERAL SAID ZINKE COULD HAVE AVOIDED CHARTER PLANE TRAVEL: The Interior’s Office of the Inspector General released a report Monday that found that Interior ethics officials who signed off on Zinke’s $12,375 charter flight after a meeting with the Las Vegas Golden Knights were not fully aware of the purpose of the meeting. The report found in its investigation that at least one ethics official who signed off on the charter plane last June for a flight between Las Vegas and Whitefish, Mont., believed the event was to speak with kids, not professional athletes. Additionally, ethics officials were not aware that the team was owned by a former campaign donor to Zinke’s congressional run in Montana.
“If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight. Moreover, had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion,” the IG office found.
The team is owned by Bill Foley, a billionaire businessman and board chairman of Fidelity National Financial Inc., who heavily donated to Zinke’s first congressional campaign in Montana according to FEC filings. Foley donated the maximum contribution amount of $2,600 in 2013 and 2018. Chicago Title Services, which is owned by Fidelity, donated $23,900 to Zinke’s campaign.
Interior Spokeswoman Heather Swift said the new IG report says “exactly what was known all along.”
“The report shows that in every instance reviewed, the secretary’s staff consulted with and sought prior approval from the career ethics officials and travel lawyers, and that we follow their expert advice,” she said in a statement.
On the upside for Interior: The report appeared to over all vindicate charter plane travel Zinke took in fiscal year 2017 saying that he “generally followed relevant law, policy, rules, and regulations.” That included Zinke’s visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands via a chartered plane in March 2017 and a trip to Alaska in May with Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP fractures over push to protect Russia probe McConnell sees GOP’s spending claw back plan as unlikely to pass Overnight Energy: Dems release docs questioning Pruitt’s security | GOP pushes back on calls to investigate Pruitt | Pruitt’s chief takes responsibility for controversial raises MORE (R-AK).
Read more here.
EMAILS SHOW INTERIOR CONSIDERED PAYING 200K FOR NEW FLAG POLES: The Interior Department took estimates for setting up four flag poles outside its main building in Washington, D.C., to fly personal flags for Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Watchdog to issue report on special EPA hiring powers | Exxon loses climate case in Massachusetts court | Park service backlog under scrutiny New Zealand bans offshore drilling to combat climate change Overnight Energy: Former Pruitt aide alleges more wasteful spending, retaliation | Senate confirms EPA No. 2 | Zinke backs off big park fee increases MORE at a cost as high as $200,000, according to internal emails released Monday by the agency.
The department ultimately decided against installing the new poles, the documents show, choosing instead in March 2017 to use three smaller, existing poles on top of its building.
It approved the purchase of three flags at a cost of $189.51 each from the National Flag Company, according to the emails. The flags are 5 feet by 9.5 feet.
The emails were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and posted publicly by Interior.
Zinke has received media attention for his desire to fly specialized flags above the department that would signify his presence. Zinke is a former Navy SEAL. An Interior spokeswoman said he wanted to fly the flag as a way of restoring honor and tradition to the department.
“Secretary Zinke has a deep respect for tradition. Since his confirmation, the Secretary has made a concerted effort to uphold, and in this case, revive long-held traditions at Interior,” Spokeswoman Heather Swift told The Hill.
Read more here:
Elsewhere in the world of emails…
BARRASSO PROBES PRUITT’S FOUR EMAIL ADDRESSES: Barrasso is looking into the EPA’s use of four email addresses for official work.
In a Friday letter obtained by The Hill, Barrasso asked Pruitt whether the agency has ensured that federal records requests involving him are searching all of his addresses.
“Can you confirm that the EPA does in fact search all your official email accounts when responding to [Freedom of Information Act] requests?” Barrasso asked Pruitt in the letter. He also asked the EPA head to provide a list of all of the email accounts that Pruitt uses.
Two Democratic senators revealed last week that the EPA has four addresses for Pruitt.
The EPA said at the time that two of them are used by staff for scheduling and correspondence, one is used by Pruitt himself and one hasn’t been used except for three test emails.
An EPA spokesman said the agency “will respond to Chairman Barrasso through the proper channels.”
Barrasso was a leading voice in criticizing then-EPA head Lisa Jackson in 2013, when the agency admitted that she had an email account under the alias “Richard Windsor” that she used extensively for official business.
He and other Republicans accused Jackson of trying to hide her emails from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, while the EPA at the time said the Richard Windsor account was fully incorporated into FOIA searches.
ON TAP TUESDAY:
NPS backlog: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the maintenance backlog and operational needs of the National Park Service (NPS).
NPS has a backlog of about $11.5 billion, and lawmakers and administration officials have been looking at fixes for it. The Trump administration wants to use excess money from expanded production of oil, natural gas and other energy on federal land and offshore, but many Democrats said the numbers don’t add up.
Senators will hear from Lena McDowall, the NPS’s deputy director for management and administration. Other witnesses will be representing stakeholders like the National Park Foundation, the Property Environmental Research Council and the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.
FERC budget: The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s energy subpanel will bring in all five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Tuesday for a hearing on its budget request for fiscal 2019.
OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pledging to financially support the Trans Mountain oil pipeline project to ensure that it gets built, The Globe and Mail reports.
The first commercial liquefied natural gas (LNG) cargo from the Cove Point LNG terminal in Maryland left Monday, Reuters reports.
BP is pledging not to increase its greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2015 levels, the Houston Chronicle reports.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
Check out stories from Monday and the weekend …
-GOP chairman probes Pruitt’s four email addresses
-Watchdog: Zinke could have avoided charter flight after meeting with Las Vegas hockey team
-Young people sue Florida governor to force action on climate change
-Watchdog: Pruitt’s chief of staff responsible for aides’ controversial raises
-Interior looked at $200k estimate to fly secretary’s flag
-GAO: EPA violated law with Pruitt’s soundproof booth
-Pruitt’s Superfund adviser downplays his federal ban from banking