Career Staff, Not Pruitt, Were Behind EPA’s $43K Phone Booth

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) career officials played a “heavy role” in the costly soundproof phone booth for Administrator Scott Pruitt that’s now the source of multiple investigations, according to documents.

Documents obtained by Bloomberg’s Jennifer Dlouhy cast new light on the $43,000 soundproof phone booth built in Pruitt’s office. Past reporting has suggested Pruitt and political appointees were the driving force behind the high-cost booth, called a sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF).

However, the documents “show the heavy role played by career officials who have purchasing power — and suggest political appointees without the authority to approve acquisitions were less involved,” Dlouhy reported.

“Administrator Pruitt simply requested a secure phone line but never asked for a soundproof booth, nor did he have knowledge of its purchase,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told Bloomberg.

The secure phone booth was initially estimated to cost $13,500, but soon morphed into $43,000 project, “complete with silenced ventilation and ‘noise-lock’ paneling to keep conversations from being overheard,” according to Bloomberg.

Pruitt’s secure phone booth has become the focus of multiple investigations, including from House lawmakers and the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently ruled the booth ran afoul of federal law since EPA officials did not notify Congress of the expense — federal law requires agencies to notify Congress for office furniture and improvement expenditures over $5,000.

EPA disagreed with GAO’s assessment, arguing they had “not identified any violation” of federal law in building the secure booth. EPA already had a secure line, but it was a few floors below the administrator’s office.

Also, notable is former EPA Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Kevin Chmielewski’s role in the project. Chmielewski is likely the source of leaks behind negative news stories regarding Pruitt’s spending and alleged ethical lapses.

Chmielewski told Democratic lawmakers Pruitt “spent well beyond the $5,000 allowed by law to decorate” his office, including “building a $43,000 soundproof phone booth.”

Yet, documents obtained by Dlouhy suggest Chmielewski was part of the approval process for the soundproof booth.

Chmielewski was invited to a July 6, 2017 meeting on the status of a “secure communication room for the administrator” along with about two dozen career EPA employees.

Former Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff Reginald Allen, EPA’s top career official at the time, sent an estimate to rush the booth that cost $24,570 to Chmielewski on August 23, according to Dlouhy.

Allen told a career official about one month later the “speed delivery” request for the booth came from Chmielewski and Pasquale Perrotta, the head of Pruitt’s security detail.

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