The $43,000 phone booth that then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt installed in his office may not have been worth all the headaches it caused him.
He placed only one phone call to the White House, newly released records from the agency show. It lasted five minutes.
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency resigned last month after coming under fire for how he spent tax dollars and treated his staff. He made the five-minute call on Jan. 29, according to Verizon phone logs released in response to litigation filed by the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group.
The new documents do not show how many incoming calls Pruitt received in the soundproof booth, which he installed last year. In April, Pruitt testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that he used the booth sparingly.
“It’s for confidential communications, and it’s rare,” he told Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).
Previously Pruitt had likened the booth to a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), which government officials use to conduct secure conversations, arguing that he needed it to discuss matters with the White House. The EPA has a SCIF at its headquarters on a different floor from the administrator’s office.
“Cabinet-level officials need to have access to secure communications,” the then-administrator testified in December. “It’s necessary for me to be able to do my job.”
EPA officials said Monday that they could not specify how many incoming calls Pruitt received from the White House in the soundproof booth.
“EPA has learned from Verizon that in order to request complete phone logs of all incoming and outgoing calls to or from these lines, EPA would need to supply Verizon with a subpoena for the records,” said EPA spokesman James Hewitt, who declined to say what the call was about.
The agency identified two phone lines associated with the booth, according to correspondence between EPA attorneys and Sierra Club lawyers. The phone numbers released through billing records for November involve calls technicians made to test the lines, EPA lawyers said.
The EPA voluntarily provided billing records for the booth through June 20, just two weeks before Pruitt resigned his post, that show no other outgoing calls from the booth. The Sierra Club’s original public-records request covered the period ending Dec. 6.
The Government Accountability Office concluded that Pruitt violated federal spending laws when he built the phone booth, because he spent more than $5,000 without providing advance notice to Congress.
While the original contract for the phone booth was slated to cost roughly $25,000, the agency ended up paying contractors an additional $18,000 to convert a closet space that could house it. That work included removing closed-circuit television equipment, pouring 55 square feet of concrete, installing a drop ceiling and patching and painting the room.
Pruitt told members of the Energy Committee in April that he did not know the project’s price tag had escalated to $43,000. “I was not aware of the approval of the $43,000, and if I had known about it . . . I would not have approved it,” he said.
A few hours later, Pruitt remarked to members of a House Appropriations subcommittee that in retrospect, the decision to install the booth “should not have been made.”
Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, said in a statement that the incident underscored the kind of managers President Trump has picked to run the federal government.
“With each new revelation it becomes clearer and clearer that Donald Trump enabled the most corrupt cabinet member ever to hang on far past his expiration date,” Pierce said, adding that Pruitt’s successor continues to advance policies that benefit corporate interests. “We need leadership at the EPA that can be trusted to protect our health, not polluter profits.”
Shortly after taking the helm of the EPA, acting administrator Andrew Wheeler indicated in an interview with E&E News that he does not intend to dismantle the phone booth. He added that he would maintain a policy Pruitt instituted in the spring that requires that at least two senior EPA officials beyond the administrator sign off on any expense over $5,000.
“It’s there,” Wheeler said of the booth. “It would be expensive to tear it apart. I don’t see any sense in tearing it apart. And in this day and age, I don’t know what the assessment was for the need of it.”