Watchdog to investigate EPA chief’s $25000 ‘secure phone booth’

He had a $25,000 "privacy booth" with a secure phone line placed in his office.

December 13, 2017, 12:27 PM

— -- The Environmental Protection Agency inspector general will review whether Administrator Scott Pruitt misused any appropriated funds when he had a $25,000 "privacy booth" with a secure phone line installed in his office earlier this year, according to a letter to democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The IG's letter in response to a request from Democrats on the committee was sent last week but posted by the Energy and Commerce committee democrats on twitter Tuesday.

The EPA has called the booth a "SCIF", a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, and said Pruitt needs the secure line to make calls about classified information and communicate with the president. But he said it's difficult to estimate how often he will need it when he was asked about it while testifying during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last week.

"The use of a secure phone line is strongly preferred for cabinet-level officials, especially when discussing sensitive matters," EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in an email Wednesday, adding that they don't comment on matters involving the inspector general.

But Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins also wrote that he won't be able to start the inquiry right away because the office doesn't have enough resources to keep up with all the investigations and other legally required duties like a semiannual report to Congress.

"The fact is that the OIG has been funded at less than the levels we deem adequate to do all the work that should be done, and therefore we have to make difficult decisions about whether to accept any given potential undertaking," Elkins wrote in the letter.

Each federal agency has an inspector general that serves as a watchdog to investigate complaints about potential fraud, waste, or abuse of agency funds. The EPA's inspector general began looking into complaints about the administrator's travel in August, which attracted scrutiny after reports that at least three cabinet secretaries took private flights that ultimately led then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to resign.

That inquiry is looking into whether the administrator misused any money or violated any policies in the course of his official travel, specifically in regards to at least one chartered flight and multiple government flights that cost more than $58,000, according to information the agency provided to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in September.

It will also look into whether Pruitt followed the proper procedures when traveling back to his home state of Oklahoma after complaints that he went there too frequently in the first few months of his time as administrator.

The IG's office also recently announced it would look into whether any rules were broken before the announcement that the U.S. would leave the Paris climate agreement, specifically when Pruitt met with the American Mining Association in April.

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