Energy & Environment

EPA watchdog to probe Pruitt’s $25,000 privacy booth

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) internal watchdog will investigate Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to spend nearly $25,000 on a privacy booth for his office.

EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins told Democrats in the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a letter made public Tuesday that his office will look into whether the agency’s purchase complies with congressional spending legislation, in response to a letter the committee sent.

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“Your letter does raise issues about whether those agency decisions comply with appropriations law, that is, are appropriated funds available for the purchase of ‘construct[ing] a secure, soundproof communications booth in the offices of Administrator Scott Pruitt’ ” Elkins wrote to Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the panel’s top Democrat, in the Deb. 8 letter.

“That is within the authority of the [inspector general] to review, and we will do so,” Elkins wrote.

Elkins added that the matter didn’t warrant a criminal investigation, and said his office would not “second-guess decisions about matters within the discretion of the agency.”

It’s the latest probe Elkins has opened at the behest of Democrats into Pruitt’s activities. His office is also reviewing Pruitt’s official travel that often took him to his home state of Oklahoma, his flights on charter and military airplanes and a meeting with a mining association in which Pruitt was alleged to have urged the group to push President Trump to exit the Paris climate agreement.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox declined to comment on the probe but defended the booth.

“The use of a secure phone line is strongly preferred for cabinet-level officials, especially when discussing sensitive matters,” he said.” We do not comment on OIG matters until they are resolved.”

The privacy booth, first reported by The Washington Post, is similar to a secure compartmentalized information facility that government officials use for confidential communications on matters like national security. But the EPA headquarters already has a secure facility elsewhere in the building.

Pruitt has defended the booth as necessary for private conversations, including with the White House, and not just for confidential communications.

“There are secured conversations that need to take place that I didn’t have access to,” he told the Energy and Commerce Committee last week. “Cabinet-level officials need to have access to secured communications.”

Pruitt said it would be “hard to predict” how often he would use the booth. 

This story was updated at 1:16 p.m.

Tags Donald Trump Environmental Protection Agency Frank Pallone Jr. Scott Pruitt

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