The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) inspector general intends to investigate the use of funds by the agency to construct a “privacy booth” in the office of Administrator Scott Pruitt, the watchdog’s second investigation into the administrator’s actions after only 10 months in the position.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and other Democrats on the panel sent a letter in early October to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General requesting a review of allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse related to the installation of the privacy booth. The EPA this summer signed a contract worth nearly $25,000 that covered the cost of the soundproof booth in Pruitt’s office.
Earlier this year, the inspector general announced plans to look into whether Pruitt adhered to agency policies when he traveled to Oklahoma dozens of times during his first six months as administrator, forcing taxpayers to foot a significant portion of the bill. The inspector general is investigating the frequency, cost, and extent of Pruitt’s travel to Oklahoma through July 31. It will seek to determine whether the EPA’s travel policies and procedures were followed by Pruitt and other agency staff as part of those trips.
Pruitt spent roughly $12,000 in taxpayer funds on travel to and from Oklahoma during this period. The inspector general’s office has yet to complete its investigation into Pruitt’s travel practices.
In response to the request by the Democratic lawmakers, Arthur Elkins, the EPA’s inspector general, sent a letter to Pallone, as well as Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Paul Tonko (D-NY), explaining that his office will look into whether the EPA’s decisions to install the booth “comply with appropriations law.” Elkins said he plans to determine whether appropriated funds were available for the purpose of the EPA constructing “a secure, soundproof communications booth” in Pruitt’s office. “That is within the authority of the IG to review, and we will do so,” the inspector general wrote.
Elkins said his office has “numerous other pending matters” and he is not sure when it can begin the investigation into the privacy booth. “We will inform you and your staff when we have begun the project, and will provide you with the results as soon as we finish,” the inspector general said.
Although he promised a scaled-back EPA that would not overstep its legal authority, the installation of a privacy booth seemingly does not conform to a back-to-basics philosophy touted by Pruitt. Congressional Democrats argued that the spending of taxpayer money on an “unprecedented” facility like the soundproof booth represents yet another example of misconduct by a Trump administration official.
In his first first appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, Pruitt told DeGette last week that he uses the booth for classified conversations and “also because of communications with the White House,” The Hill reported. He would not provide the committee, which has oversight over the EPA, with an estimate on how often he uses the booth.
The agency already has a secure information area — known as a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) — at its Washington headquarters. But Pruitt said in an interview with the Washington Post that he would prefer if he did not have to walk down two levels at EPA’s headquarters where there is the secure information area.
In his letter to Pallone, Elkins said there was no information in the request or that has otherwise come to the attention of the inspector general’s office that indicates any criminal violations occurred in the installation of the soundproof booth. Therefore, the inspector general’s office said it decided against conducting a full-blown audit into the money spent on the booth.