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The EPA’s Cone of Silence

Monday April 30th, 2018   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 6:26am PDT   •  

When I was a kid, I would often come home in the afternoons after school to old reruns of episodes from the 1960s comedy Get Smart airing on a local TV station, which featured the misadventures of Maxwell Smart, a secret agent who fielded an array of high-tech spy gadgets that, aside from a shoe phone, never seemed to work as intended.

One of those gadgets was a device known as the “Cone of Silence”, which was meant to allow the show’s spies to have conversations that couldn’t be monitored by outsiders, but which didn’t work at all, which became a recurring joke on the show. The following clip of the show features the Cone of Silence in action:

That vintage show has become relevant again today because the top secret spy agency known as the Environmental Protection Agency decided to unlawfully spend $43,000 to install its own version of the Cone of Silence to facilitate its adminstrators’ ability to have secure conversations. Michael Biesecker of the Los Angeles Times reports on the findings of the General Accountability Office (GAO):

An internal government watchdog says the Environmental Protection Agency violated federal spending laws when purchasing a $43,000 soundproof privacy booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt to make private phone calls in his office.

The Government Accountability Office issued its findings Monday in a letter to Senate Democrats who had requested a review of Pruitt’s spending.

GAO General Counsel Thomas Armstrong determined that EPA’s purchase of the booth violated federal law prohibiting agencies from spending more than $5,000 for redecorating, furnishings or other improvements to the offices of presidential appointees without informing Congress. Because EPA used federal money in a manner specifically prohibited by law, Armstrong said the agency also violated the Antideficiency Act, and is legally obligated to report that violation to Congress.

As wasteful spending in the federal government goes, the EPA’s installation of its own Cone of Silence technology is a small offense against fiscal discipline, costing the equivalent of one-year’s pay for a low level bureaucrat (not counting their very generous benefits package)!

In theory, bureaucrats found guilty of violating the Antideficiency Act can be prosecuted and jailed for as much as one year. In practice, Timothy Cama of The Hill confirms that no bureaucrat ever has.

Adding to the spy drama, Cama also reports on EPA chief administrator Scott Pruitt’s congressional testimony, in which he revealed that the agency’s new $43,000 soundproof booth was installed without ever having been approved by Pruitt.

Pruitt later in the hearing went a step further, saying he didn’t even approve the privacy booth expenditure.

“Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through,” Pruitt told Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.). “I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000, and if I’d known about it, congressman, I would have refused it.”

He explained the genesis of the booth as well.

“I did have a phone call that came in, of a sensitive nature, and I did not have access to secure communications. I gave direction to my staff to address that,” Pruitt said.

“And out of that came a $43,000 expenditure that I did not approve,” he continued.

Only in Washington D.C. would a recurring gag from a late-1960s television show ever become part of the U.S. government’s ongoing wasteful spending comedy over fifty years later.

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April 2018