EPA spent more than $43,000 on a 'secure phone booth' for Scott Pruitt’s office

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox called the expenditures in the documents "old news."

March 14, 2018, 3:06 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency spent more than $43,000 to install a private phone booth in Administrator Scott Pruitt's office, according to newly released federal records - more than the $25,000 the agency confirmed to ABC News it originally spent for the booth.

A $24,570 contract described as "privacy booth for the administrator" is listed in a federal database from August 2017.

However, the agency also paid almost $8,000 to remove CCTV equipment from the administrator's office before the booth was to be installed, according to another contract listed in the database as being signed in September.

In July the agency also paid about $3,350 to patch and paint the walls in that area of his office.

Later that month the agency spent an additional $3,470 to install a 55 square foot concrete floor and in September the EPA paid $3,360 to install a drop ceiling in the administrator's "closet," according to invoices in agency documents obtained by the watchdog group American Oversight through a Freedom of Information Act request and publicly released on Wednesday. The story was first reported by the Washington Post.

The total costs for prep work and construction of the booth itself is roughly $43,000 — a figure Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce committee say they want Pruitt to answer questions about.

House Energy and Commerce committee ranking member Frank Pallone, D-N.J, asked the EPA inspector general to look into the private phone booth when it was first reported and said on Wednesday that Pruitt needs to answer questions before congress about the expense.

PHOTO: Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), stands for a photograph after an interview in his office at the EPA headquarters in Washington, Oct. 25, 2017.
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), stands for a photograph after an interview in his office at the EPA headquarters in Washington, Oct. 25, 2017.

“Pruitt’s privacy booth was already a giant waste of money, and the price tag just gets bigger. While I’m glad GAO is investigating, it’s long past time for Congressional Republicans to hold Administrator Pruitt accountable for his abuse of taxpayer funds,” Pallone told ABC News in a statement. “It’s time for Pruitt to explain himself before our committee.”

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox called the expenditures in the documents "old news."

“This is old news; because in September of 2017 we thoroughly discussed why this secure communications line was needed for the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," Wilcox said in a statement.

Pruitt’s spending—especially on security— has been under scrutiny from Congress and the watchdog division of the agency as well as the Government Accountability Office.

The EPA spent almost $2,500 to install biometric locks with fingerprint readers in Pruitt's office in April and spent about $3,000 to have his office swept for listening devices in March.

The agency says it has increased Pruitt’s security detail in response to an "unprecedented" number of threats and has cited security reasons for the administrator's first class travel.

Pruitt said in February that there have been incidents when he travels and that security decisions were made by his staff.

"There have been instances, unfortunately, during my time as administrator as I've flown and I spent time of interaction that's not been the best and so ingress and egress off the plane, the security aspect, those are decision all made by our detail team, by the chief of staff, by the administration. I don't make any of those decisions," Pruitt told ABC affiliate WMUR.

Pruitt recently said that he would direct his staff to find a new plan that involved flying in coach.

The agency has declined to provide specific details about the a private phone booth and whether it meets the requirements as a facility used for secure communications to discuss classified information, known as a SCIF. The EPA already has a SCIF elsewhere in its headquarters.

Pruitt, during a hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee in December, said that he needs the secure phone to communicate with the president and that he couldn't say exactly how often he will need to use the booth.

The EPA's inspector general told that committee that it plans to look into the spending on the soundproof booth but that review is now being conducted by the Government Accountability Office.

The inspector general is also conducting a review of Pruitt's travel costs that is expected to be complete later this year.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, who sits on that chamber’s Environment and Public Works committee, has also asked Pruitt for more information about the contract to sweep his office for bugs. Whitehouse wrote in a letter that the company used to conduct the sweep has a connection to the head of Pruitt's security detail and the senator wants more information on whether the contract was awarded through the proper procedure.

There are also questions about Trump administration cabinet officials’ spending on office decorations, such as a $31,000 dining set for the office of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.

The documents released by American Oversight on Wednesday also show that the EPA spent $2,963 on a standing desk for Pruitt. In one of the emails a staffer from the Office of the Administrator wrote that cheaper desks were available but they were made overseas and agencies are required to buy American-made products under the Buy America Act.

Cabinet secretaries are limited to $5,000 to spend to redecorate their office during the transition to the new administration, according to federal law. Any spending higher than that has to be reported to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

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