(Bloomberg) -- In the beginning, it was supposed to be just a secure telephone line.
But over the course of four months last year, that phone line destined for the office of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt morphed from a no-more-than $13,500 project into a $43,000 privacy booth, complete with silenced ventilation and "noise-lock" paneling to keep conversations from being overheard, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg News.
The documents, including purchase requisition forms and email correspondence, add another element to the portrait emerging about Pruitt’s spending habits at the agency. They also illustrate some staff unease with the purchase as the scale of the project grew and costs mushroomed.
Just one month into the project, on June 28, 2017, Gayle Jefferson, the director of the EPA’s facilities management and services division, confided to colleagues: "The secure room for the administrator appears to be taking on a life of its own."
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said that "Administrator Pruitt simply requested a secure phone line but never asked for a soundproof booth, nor did he have knowledge of its purchase."
Role of Career Staff
"As required by law,” Wilcox added, "career EPA employees authorized the purchase and installation."
The documents obtained by Bloomberg News do not capture verbal conversations; they contain electronic communication and may be incomplete. From the documents alone, it is impossible to verify the scope of the initial phone line request or know whether Pruitt and other political appointees ever encouraged a more elaborate project.
Pruitt’s soundproof phone booth -- installed a few floors up from another secure telecommunications center in the same Washington building -- is drawing scrutiny from lawmakers, the White House and the EPA’s inspector general. Pruitt is already under fire for other spending -- including pricey first-class travel -- and his unorthodox $50-a-night rental of a bedroom in a Capitol Hill condominium from a lobbyist last year.
Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office concluded the EPA violated an appropriations law by failing to tell Congress about the planned telecommunications booth purchase, since advance notification was required when spending more than $5,000 to furnish or redecorate an agency head’s office.
The GAO also said the EPA ran afoul of the Antideficiency Act, a measure prohibiting federal agencies from spending government funds in advance or in excess of an appropriation. Career officials within the EPA’s Office of General Counsel had concluded the phone booth purchase -- like other approved spending on biometric locks -- did not need to be reported to Congress.
The documents obtained by Bloomberg News 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.
A July 6, 2017 calendar invite to discuss the status of a "secure communication room for the administrator" included roughly two dozen career EPA employees and one political appointee: former Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Chmielewski.
EPA officials seeking bids for the project initially estimated a privacy booth would cost $13,500 on a July 24, 2017 requisition form. Another $11,500 was added on Aug. 17, and an additional $570 was included on Aug. 23 as the staff closed in on a final vendor. That $25,570, including a $1,000 after-hours delivery charge, was just for the booth itself; total costs ballooned to $43,000 after prep work and installation, including leveling a concrete floor to insert the pre-fabricated steel box.
Former Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff Reginald Allen -- who had the top career post in the EPA -- sent booth costs of $24,570 to Chmielewski on Aug. 23, adding that he was waiting for an estimate for the floor from Jefferson’s team. Another email says funding was being handled by Allen’s office.
At one point, EPA staff considered four different options for the booth purchase, ranging from $20,560 for a standard delivery that could take three months to their ultimate choice: a rush job in less than half the time with a $24,570 price tag.
The staff realized the project would draw attention on Sept. 27, when an acquisition manager warned Allen: "Just wanted to give you a heads up that the booth made it to the news." While "it is a legal purchase," the manager said, it "will be scrutinized."
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