President Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk: “The buck stops here.” Given what we know about recent events at the Environmental Protection Agency, it appears that Administrator Pruitt thinks that the buck stops far down the line, blaming excessive spending in multiple areas on staff. His security staff person was responsible for first class flights and unprecedented expenditures on security; unnamed staff were faulted for the process and amount of gigantic raises for his Oklahoma aides that followed him to EPA (an increase of $56,000 for one staff member); and the demotions or reassignment of staff members who questioned his profligacy was simply routine.
Administrator Pruitt’s spending habits at EPA have repeatedly demonstrated a certain level of contempt for taxpayers and the public. At this point, the list of outrageous spending items is well known: the $43,000 sound proof phone booth; a new, tricked-out vehicle (while a perfectly good Chevy Tahoe leased for the administrator months before sits idle) ; $163,000 in first class flights (including a suspicious number of trips to his home state of Oklahoma); and the largest and most expensive security detail in the history of the agency.
There are so many things wrong with this pattern of behavior it is hard to know where to start. Actually, we think maybe the best place to start is the phone booth.
Let’s provide a little context to this purchase. Cabinet members and other senior officials from time to time need to review classified documents and have conversations about classified information. The security procedures require that classified information is reviewed and discussed in what is called a Secure Compartmentalized Information Facility, or SCIF. The EPA already has two SCIFs. So if Mr. Pruitt needed to have sensitive, secret conversations about environmental issues he had a place to go.
But, as Mr. Pruitt acknowledged in his testimony this week, the phone booth in his office is not a SCIF. So if he is going to have sensitive conversations that involved classified information, he still needs to go to one of the SCIFs in the building. Sometimes a sound proof private phone booth is just a sound proof phone booth. Evidently so he can have private conversations without people eavesdropping. Think about that: a cabinet member with a large office, with a door, spent $43,000 of taxpayer dollars to reduce the possibility of his staff eavesdropping on him. Is closing the door and talking quietly not enough? Was Get Smart’s Cone of Silence available?
And, let’s not forget, the initial finding of the Government Accountability Office (GAO – the nonpartisan watchdog agency of Congress) is that the phone booth expenditure violates the Antideficiency Act restrictions on expenditures not authorized by Congress.
Many members of Congress, the president, and several prominent former officials have said that Mr. Pruitt’s success in pursuing the president’s agenda should be the focus, and all these pesky complaints about spending and ethics are just attempts to derail the Trump administration’s agenda to reduce regulations. This defense is almost laughable. Of course the president can and should appoint someone who shares his views. But it is hard to believe there is no one available who shares Mr. Trump’s goals who has better judgment and takes his or her fiduciary duty to taxpayers more seriously.
But here’s the good news: for perhaps the first time since President Trump took office, Congress looks like it will exercise its oversight authority in looking into Mr. Pruitt’s profligate spending and ethically questionable conduct. House Oversight and Government Committee chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) has announced that the committee will be investigating Mr. Pruitt’s spending habits. This is a welcome action: the checks and balances of our system depends on the legislative branch providing oversight of the executive branch, regardless whether we have united or divided government.
We’ve always noted that how public officials – be it in Congress or the Executive branch – spend taxpayer dollars on their own needs provides a lens into their budgetary soul. If they waste money on office expenses, they’re going to waste taxpayer dollars writ large. There will never be a time when all of the country agrees with the policies of any given president or cabinet member – that is the beauty of the diversity and freedom we enjoy in this country. But taxpayers need to be able to trust that cabinet officials understand that taxpayer dollars should never be wasted. Mr. Pruitt’s spending excesses can only be explained by one of two ways. Either he willfully spent what he wanted, without regard to saving public dollars. Or, if in fact his staff is responsible for all of the errors, he has failed as a leader and executive by allowing for the wasteful spending to take place. Take your pick. But in either scenario, taxpayers can’t afford Mr. Pruitt.