Compared to other pricey office accoutrements, this one is spartan.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s ultra-secure phone booth spans four feet across and four feet deep and was installed in a storage closet off his office. But it has the latest in acoustical accents, including a ventilation system designed to keep conversations from being overheard and “noise-lock” panels on the walls and ceiling.
It spared Pruitt from having to run downstairs to use a secure phone line elsewhere in the building -- but has drawn a storm of criticism.
“I don’t see a reason for it,” said John O’Grady, president of a branch of the American Federation of Government Employees that represents thousands of EPA employees. “For crying out loud, the guy is the EPA administrator -- not the CIA or the FBI.”
The installation cost more than $43,000, including having workers level the concrete floor so they could insert the pre-fabricated steel box. The Government Accountability Office -- the watchdog of federal spending -- says the expenditure violated laws on congressional notification and appropriations.
The GAO conclusion, contained in a report commissioned by Democratic lawmakers and released Monday, is one of a number of controversies surrounding Pruitt’s short tenure at the helm of the agency. He’s also being investigated for his use of first-class travel, renting a condo from a lobbyist and steering raises worth tens of thousands of dollars to aides over White House objections.
“An illegal privacy booth to conduct secret discussions with his polluter friends does nothing to help our health or environment,” said Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, one of several Democratic lawmakers who asked for the audit. “The list of ways he has abused his office just keeps getting longer.”
The EPA argued that the unit was necessary and didn’t violate the law. Pruitt needed the booth “to facilitate agency business, without concern that classified, deliberative, privileged, or sensitive information might inadvertently be disclosed to those who are not intended to receive such information,” the agency said last month in a response to questions from the GAO.
The GAO said it didn’t draw any conclusions about the necessity of the project, only that it fell outside spending rules because appropriations committees were not notified and the EPA spent money for the booth “in a manner specifically prohibited by law.”
Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, the Republican chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has demanded a “full public accounting” of the booth.
“It sounds like a nice one,” said Jaye Andone, president and chief executive officer of SCIF Global Technologies, Inc, a Florida-based manufacturer of soundproof rooms, known as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities.
The equipment is typically much larger and used by the Department of Defense and other agencies that need to discuss classified information. But the company has seen a rise in requests from corporate chief executives and other commercial users, Andone said in a phone interview.
The specifications for government secure rooms are laid out in a directive from the central intelligence director, including requirements to reinforce walls with steel plates and make sure doors, windows and vents are shielded by sound-masking devices.
Those technical requirements -- for steel-reinforced walls, sound-masking devices and reinforced doors -- make them some of the most expensive real estate in Washington. The Congressional Research Service said in a 2008 report that building one in an existing facility can cost $200 to $500 per square foot.
Similar rooms are located inside the White House, in the Pentagon and the Capitol complex. The Energy Department, which oversees production of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, also has one.
The EPA’s offices in Washington already had one in the basement, said Liz Purchia, who served as an acting associate administrator in the agency during the Obama administration. She said she didn’t see the need for a second one.
“Previous administrators used it without problems for years,” Purchia said. “It needs to be questioned as to why he needed one in his office. If he’s worried about people overhearing what he has to say, he could try whispering. That doesn’t cost $43,000.”