WASHINGTON - Before Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt could install a secure, soundproof phone booth in his office last fall, officials had to create space for the addition in a nearby closet area.
Those preparations didn’t come cheap.
The agency paid a Virginia firm $7,978 to remove closed-circuit television equipment to make room for the booth, according to a federal database. Officials hired another contractor to pour 55 square feet of concrete more than 2 feet thick, at a cost of $3,470, according to invoices released under a public records request by the watchdog group American Oversight. Other workers installed a drop ceiling for $3,361, while still others patched and painted the small area for $3,350, records show.
In total, the EPA appears to have spent more than $18,000 on the prep work, readying the space for a $25,000 soundproof booth that has brought Pruitt a wave of criticism and official scrutiny. The total cost for the project now appears to be closer to $43,000.
"This is old news," EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in an email Tuesday when asked about the additional expenses. "In September of 2017 we thoroughly discussed why this secure communications line was needed for the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."
The agency did not address specific questions about the work done before the phone booth was installed, particularly the need for that concrete slab.
When The Washington Post reported on the purchase of the booth last year, EPA officials said that Pruitt needed a secure communications area in his office so he could have private calls with White House officials and others in the administration. Pruitt reiterated that point when testifying before Congress in December, describing the booth as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF.
"It’s necessary for me to be able to do my job," Pruitt told lawmakers when questioned during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.
But no previous EPA leaders have had such a setup. The agency has long maintained a SCIF on a separate floor from the administrator’s office, where officials with proper clearances can go to share information classified as secret. Pruitt’s aides have never specified what aspects of that facility might be outdated, or whether the unit now inside the administrator’s office meets the physical and technical specifications generally required for a SCIF.
The EPA’s inspector general has said it is investigating the purchase of the soundproof booth, after New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, requested an inquiry into the $24,570 expenditure.
The agency’s contract last summer was with Acoustical Solutions, a Richmond, Virginia-based company, for a "privacy booth for the administrator." The company sells and installs various sound-dampening and privacy products, from ceiling baffles to full-scale enclosures like the one picked by the EPA.
Typically, such soundproof booths are used to conduct hearing tests. But Pruitt’s version was customized to ensure private communication, and so the final design cost several times more than a standard model. "They had a lot of modifications," said Steve Snider, an acoustic sales consultant with the company, said at the time.
Around the same time, records show, the agency began preparing a small room off Pruitt’s office to hold the booth. The work included hiring a Virginia-based contractor to install the drop ceiling, as well as a separate Virginia contractor to pour the slab. A Maryland firm did the patching and painting.
The disclosures were part of a broader public records request for Pruitt’s remodeling or renovating expenditures since arriving at EPA. American Oversight filed a lawsuit late last year, seeking to compel the agency to release the records.
In addition to the preparations for the soundproof booth, the invoices released by the EPA showed that Pruitt paid $2,075 to refinish a desk that had been stored in a government warehouse, as well as $2,963 for a new "captain’s desk" in his office. In a memo included in the release, an EPA staffer wrote that officials had found lower-cost standing desks for Pruitt, but those were made overseas and did not meet federal requirements that government leaders buy products made in the United States.