The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general will investigate how it decided to spend more than $25,000 installing a secure, soundproof communications booth in the office of Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, requested the inquiry earlier this fall, asking the EPA watchdog to examine any potential waste, fraud or abuse related to the project. The small booth was purchased from the Richmond-based company Acoustical Solutions.
Typically, the type of soundproof booth like the one installed at the agency’s headquarters is used to conduct hearing tests. But the EPA sought out a far more expensive, customized version that Pruitt could use to communicate privately with top government officials. The agency appears to also have spent an additional $7,978 removing closed-circuit television equipment to make room for the booth in an area off Pruitt’s third-floor office, according to a government contracting database.
In response to Pallone’s letter, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins wrote that his office would investigate whether the funds spent on the project “comply with appropriations law.”
“That is within the authority of the IG to review, and we will do so,” Elkins wrote, while also cautioning that such an inquiry might not happen quickly. “As you know, we have numerous other pending matters, and are not sure when we can begin this engagement.”
EPA officials initially said that Pruitt needed a secure communications area in his office so he could have private calls with the White House and other administration officials. Pruitt himself has repeated the claim, describing the soundproof booth as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF.
“It’s necessary for me to be able to do my job,” Pruitt told lawmakers during a hearing on Capitol Hill last week.
But no previous EPA administrators had such a setup, and the agency has long maintained a SCIF on a separate floor from the administrator’s office, where officials with proper clearances can go to share information classified as secret. The agency has not specified what aspects of that facility might be outdated, or whether the unit inside Pruitt’s office would meet the physical and technical specifications generally required for a SCIF.
“I didn’t have a secure phone in this office to have the conversations that sometimes need to be secure,” Pruitt told The Washington Post’s James Hohmann last month. “And it’s kind of hard to tell someone that’s reaching out that, to have a confidential secure conversation, I’ve got to go down two floors, and over two levels, and I’ll call you back.… And sometimes legend leads to misinformation in the marketplace. Not everything you read, by the way, is fully reflective of what the truth is.”
In a statement Tuesday, an EPA spokesman said that “the use of a secure phone line is strongly preferred for cabinet-level officials, especially when discussing sensitive matters.” He added, “We do not comment on OIG matters until they are resolved.”
The inquiry is not the only one Pruitt is facing from his agency’s inspector general.
In August, the watchdog announced that it had opened an inquiry into Pruitt’s frequent travel back to Oklahoma, where he formerly served as state attorney general. It said at the time that the investigation was triggered by “congressional requests and a hotline complaint, all of which expressed concerns about Administrator Pruitt’s travel — primarily his frequent travel to and from his home state of Oklahoma at taxpayer expense.”
That probe was triggered in part by findings from the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group that detailed through public records that Pruitt had spent nearly half of the days in March, April and May in Oklahoma. Pruitt said any taxpayer-funded trips there were work-related.
In October, the EPA inspector general acknowledged plans to expand its initial investigation into Pruitt’s travel habits. The move came after disclosures that Pruitt had taken at least four noncommercial and military flights since mid-February, costing taxpayers more than $58,000 to fly him to various parts of the country, according to records provided to a congressional oversight committee and obtained by The Post.