Watchdog finds EPA broke law by spending $43K on Scott Pruitt’s soundproof booth and not telling Congress

Ledyard King, USATODAY Published 12:31 p.m. ET April 16, 2018 | Updated 2:41 p.m. ET April 16, 2018

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is denying he knew about big raises given to two of his closest aides and insisting he did nothing wrong in renting a bargain-priced condo tied to an energy lobbyist. (April 5) AP

WASHINGTON — The EPA broke the law when it failed to tell lawmakers on House and Senate spending committees that it was allocating more than $43,000 to install a soundproof phone booth in Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office last year, according to a congressional watchdog agency.
In a report issued Monday, the Government Accountability Office said the agency violated the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2017 when it failed to notify both House and Senate appropriations committees prior to obligating the money to install a soundproof privacy booth in Pruitt’s office.
Any office expenditure above $5,000 requires lawmakers be notified, according to the eight-page GAO report. The total cost of the soundproof booth and its installation amounted to $43,238.68.
The privacy booth cost $24,570, including delivery and assembly, according to the GAO. The remaining expenses included: “Concrete Floor Leveling” ($3,470); “Drop Ceiling Installation” ($3,360.97) “Prep and Wall Painting” ($3,350); “Removal of CCTV Equipment” ($7,978); and “Infrastructure Cabling and Wiring” ($509.71).
EPA Spokeswoman Liz Bowman said the agency would comply with the findings and alert lawmakers.
“The GAO letter ‘recognized the…need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line’ when handling sensitive information,” she said. “EPA is addressing GAO’s concern, with regard to Congressional notification about this expense, and will be sending Congress the necessary information this week.”
The GAO’s review was requested by several key Democratic lawmakers, led by Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Wyoming GOP Sen. John Barrasso, a Pruitt ally who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee said it’s “critical” all federal agencies including the EPA follow the law.
“EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law,” Barrasso said.
During a congressional hearing in December, Pruitt said he needed the equipment to conduct private calls with White House officials and others in the administration without the fear of eavesdropping.

“There are secure conversations that need to be take place at times,” he told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Cabinet-level officials need to have access to secure communications (systems).”
The installation of the phone booth is one of several issues Pruitt’s critics have seized on in calling for President Trump to dismiss him.
The former Oklahoma Attorney General has been slammed for allegedly giving aides raises after the White House told him not to, for renting a bedroom in a Capitol Hill apartment owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist, and for spending more than $100,000 on luxury air travel.
“The GAO report underscores that Scott Pruitt shouldn’t be trusted with a child’s piggy bank, much less with access to the federal treasury,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.
President Trump continues to stand by his embattled Cabinet member, tweeting earlier this month that Pruitt’s “bold actions” as EPA administrator in deregulaton efforts point to the “great job” he’s doing.

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Unions Want to Know Where the Hell All That Trump Tax Cut Money Went

Several unions are demanding that employers explain what exactly they’re doing with they huge windfall Republicans gave them.

Livia Gershon
Apr 6 2018, 5:09pm

 

Certified nursing assistant Gloria Duquette starts each work day at 7 AM, dashes to her second job at 3 PM, and finishes at 11 PM. All day long, she transports nursing home residents to and from dining rooms and bathrooms and dialysis machines, helps them shower, and changes their clothes and diapers. The Connecticut resident works more than 90 hours a week, including a third job where she gets some hours as a home care provider, and her husband works nights as a machine operator. After paying insurance and taxes, she said, the family can only just cover its bills. So she was naturally hoping the tax cut package passed by Republicans in Congress and signed by Donald Trump late last year would help her out.

“When I heard that these tax cuts passed I’m happy,” she told me. “I’m like, maybe I could give up one of my jobs now.”
Duquette, a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said she went to the director of the nursing home where she works full-time to ask about what she’d heard Trump say on TV—that the tax cut, which lowered rates for businesses and the wealthy in particular, would result in raises for regular workers. But she found that the nursing home, operated by Genesis HealthCare, hadn’t announced anything like that. (Like several companies contacted for this article, Genesis declined to comment.)
In Georgia, Jerome Westpoint spends his days picking up trash from construction sites and the backs of grocery stores. The work is hard and dangerous—you never know what you’ll find in a dumpster or a landfill. Westport has been doing the job for nearly 44 years, and, as a member of the Teamsters, he earns a middle-class wage. He said a guy can make $55,000 to $75,000 a year doing what he does. After the tax cut bill passed, Westport said, he and other workers asked their employer, Republic Services, about getting a share of the windfall.
“They’re not going to give us anything,” he said. “Me personally, I feel like it’s a slap in the face. I have been out here long enough to see guys, once they retire five years, they don’t live long because they have been exposed to so much stuff out here in the field. In respect to that, I think we deserve something.”
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Back in October, Kevin Hassett, chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, predicted that cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent would result in a $4,000 to $9,000 jump in America’s average household income. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office, as well as Trump himself, also cited the $4,000 number. The idea was that companies would bring jobs back from overseas and reinvest the tax savings in expanded operations—classic trickle-down economics, in other words,
Workers like Duquette and Westpoint are asking exactly where that money went.

Four major unions—the SEIU, the Teamsters, Communication Workers of America (CWA), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—are calling on corporations to disclose exactly what they’re doing with the windfall from the tax cut. They’ve sent letters to ten companies that are currently in, or preparing for, negotiations with unionized workers. They argue that that information is vitally important to them as they prepare to hash out new contracts.
“We think the information is relevant for us to make counterproposals, or proposals, to make sure we are advocating on behalf our members and that they share in the profits that our members helped to create,” said Jennifer Abruzzo, special council for strategic initiatives at CWA. “If we don’t ask for them, our members won’t get them.”
In the wake of the tax bill, numerous companies announced bonuses for employees. Several targets of the union campaign—American Airlines, AT&T, and PepsiCo—gave $1,000 to some or all non-executive workers. These employers often tied the bonuses explicitly to the Trump tax cut and received a burst of positive media coverage, even as some of those same companies quietly cut jobs.

No one would turn down a bonus, but bonuses are not the same as real raises, said Kevin Leicht, a sociologist who studies inequality and class at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. While a raise increases a worker’s base salary so that they make more money each year going forward, a bonus is just a one-time payment. Leicht told me that given the record profits that corporate America was already making before the tax cut, there’s no reason to believe companies will use a significant part of their tax savings for raises or reinvestment.
“I know almost no credible people who think that,” he said. “Past experience is, tax cuts have not resulted in wages rising, so why would that happen now in the absence of some overwhelming reason to do it?”
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Instead, Leicht said, companies are most likely to use the money to pay dividends to shareholders, stockpile cash, or buy back stock—a move that boosts share prices and makes it easier to reward investors. Early signs already show big increases in dividend payments and stock buybacks this year.
Still, it’s unclear exactly where all the tax cut savings are going, prompting the unions’ action. They’ve sent letters to two divisions of AT&T, two American Airlines regional carriers, cable station operator Nexstar Media Group, Consulate Health Care, Genesis HealthCare, Kindred Healthcare, American Medical Response, Fresenius Medical Care, as well as Frito-Lay/Pepsi and XPO Logistics. The Teamsters is also planning to send one to Westpoint’s employer, Republic Services, and Abruzzo said unions will continue sending similar letters as they prepare to negotiate contracts with other employers.
In response to questions about the union campaign, American Airlines pointed to its $1,000 bonuses. One of its regional carriers, Envoy Air, said it could not comment because it’s currently engaged in negotiations with the union. A second division, Piedmont, said it has already negotiated an agreement with CWA and that it had provided the union with the relevant information.
In a statement, Brad Puffer, a spokesperson for Fresenius Medical Care North America, said that the “vast majority” of the tax benefit would go to employee salaries and improvements to its operations. “In fact, by investing in our value based care efforts, we will save the government in excess of what we’re receiving in tax reform while improving health outcomes and the experience for our patients,” he said.

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Trump was reportedly upset that Nikki Haley announced new Russia sanctions

April 16, 2018

President Trump is reportedly looking to avoid levying new economic sanctions on Russia in response to a suspected chemical attack by Syria this month.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced Sunday that sanctions would be forthcoming to send “a strong message” denouncing Russia’s backing of the Syrian government. But The Washington Post reported Monday that Trump was upset that the sanctions were already in motion because he was “not yet comfortable executing them.” The president reportedly wants to instead wait to see if Russia further provokes a response from the U.S. before deciding on sanctions.
The president reportedly had not approved the sanctions when Haley announced them, and on Monday the White House publicly backpedaled Haley’s statement. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration is merely “considering additional sanctions,” and that “a decision will be made in the near future.” Publicly, officials sought to paint Haley’s announcement as a misstatement or an “error that needs to be mopped up,” officials told the Post.
Other sources said that there was confusion among administration officials and that it was unclear what the plan actually was. Haley reportedly confers with Trump frequently and is careful specifically to review her talking points before public appearances — which would make this instance unusual if it was, in fact, a mistake, the Post noted.

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