House Democrats want the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of inspector general to investigate the agency’s installation of a “privacy booth” for Administrator Scott Pruitt under the belief that the spending of taxpayer money on an “unprecedented” facility represents yet another example of misconduct by a Trump administration official.
Pruitt’s conduct during his short tenure as head of the EPA has already produced a long list of allegations of legal wrongdoing by the former top law enforcement official for the state of Oklahoma. Among the investigations underway is an inquiry into the EPA chief’s regular visits to his home state during his first months in office.
Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote a letter to the inspector general on Thursday explaining that Pruitt’s desire for a dedicated communications booth in his office raises questions about the types of conversations the EPA chief is having that would warrant a private soundproof booth. The letter was signed by House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-NJ), House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette (D-CO), and House Environment Subcommittee ranking member Paul Tonko (D-NY).
Earlier this year, the EPA reportedly instituted rules prohibiting employees from carrying cell phones and taking notes in meetings with Pruitt, restricting movement within the building, and requiring escorts. “If misused, and this facility is in fact a private communications booth, then this action would represent the latest action in a troubling pattern of secrecy and distrust at the EPA under Administrator Pruitt’s leadership,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter.
Even before the public became aware of his privacy booth, Pruitt — sworn into office less than eight months ago — was attracting widespread scrutiny for alleged misuse of agency funds, potential violation of a lobbying law, and holding secret meetings with officials from the industries his agency is tasked with regulating.
Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that since taking office in February, Pruitt has held back-to-back meetings, briefing sessions, and speaking engagements almost daily with top corporate executives and lobbyists from the industries he regulates — and almost no meetings with environmental groups or consumer or public health advocates. In interviews for a report by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative on Trump’s EPA, current and former agency employees have expressed concern with Pruitt’s preference for secrecy over transparency.
In August, the three Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to Pruitt raising concerns over a “lack of transparency” at the agency. “We are troubled by reports that the agency continues to operate with complete disregard for transparency by discontinuing the long-standing practice of posting the calendars of agency leadership online, taking down agency websites, and halting certain data collections from polluters,” the lawmakers wrote.
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. The EPA reportedly is spending nearly $25,000 to build the soundproof communications booth, even though the agency’s headquarters already has a secure facility on another floor of the building.
The EPA also has beefed up Pruitt’s security team. He now has an 18-member security detail made up of armed personnel who guard him 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unprecedented for any previous EPA administration.
In their request, the lawmakers asked the EPA’s inspector general to determine what justification was provided by the agency for the additional secure facility in Pruitt’s office. They also want to know what policies and procedures are in place to ensure Pruitt will use the booth solely for official communications that require the use of such a facility.
“Americans deserve an EPA Administrator who devotes agency resources to protecting human health and the environment, and they have a right to know if Administrator Pruitt is wasting taxpayer money on duplicative and unnecessary purchases for his office,” the lawmakers said in the letter.
Soon after heading to Washington to lead the EPA, Pruitt found himself under investigation by officials in his home state. The Oklahoma Bar Association opened an inquiry in March into Pruitt’s testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing regarding his use of personal email to conduct official business as Oklahoma attorney general.
Among the multiple investigation into the travel practices of Trump administration officials, the EPA’s office of inspector general already is looking into whether Pruitt adhered to agency policies when he traveled to Oklahoma dozens of times during his first six months as administrator. Pruitt spent 43 days in a 92-day stretch either in Oklahoma, or traveling to and from the state. All of those trips used taxpayer funds to cover at least one leg of travel.