EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt asserted Thursday that EPA lawyers believed the $43,000 soundproof booth he had installed in his office was lawful, despite a Government Accountability Office report to the contrary.
But at several points during a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Environment, Pruitt alternately shifted blame for the huge expense to underlings and argued that it was necessary for its convenience and purported security.
“Well, Mr. Pruitt, there happens to be two places in this building, right close to your office, where you can do that,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) told Pruitt at one point.
“They’re not right close to my office,” Pruitt responded.
“Well, how often do you have to use your secret phone booth?” Welch asked.
“It’s for confidential communications and it’s rare,” Pruitt responded.
The EPA administrator had said earlier the booth was “actually not a SCIF” — that is, a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility — despite the EPA’s previous claim to the GAO that the booth “enables him to use this area to make and receive classified telephone calls (up to the top secret level) for the purpose of conducting agency business.”
In September, a spokesperson for the EPA called Pruitt’s booth a SCIF.
“Federal agencies need to have one of these so that secured communications, not subject to hacking from the outside, can be held,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told the Washington Post in a statement for a story on the booth. “It’s called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). This is something which a number, if not all, Cabinet offices have and EPA needs to have updated.”
Pressed by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), all Pruitt committed to is that the matter was under investigation.
Responding later to a question from Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), Pruitt said the booth “has not been certified as a SCIF, and it does provide protection on confidential communications.”
“I gave direction to my staff to address that,” Pruitt added, referring to what he called his lack of access to secure communications — even though the EPA already had areas to conduct secure communications. “And out of that came a $43,000 expenditure that I did not approve.”
“Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through,” he added later, responding to another question. “I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000, and if I had known about it, congressman, I would not have approved it.”
“That seems a bit odd,” Cárdenas responded. “If something happens in my office, especially to the degree of $43,000, I know about it before, during and after.”
“I was not aware it was $13,000, $8,000 or $43,000,” Pruitt added later in response to Rep. Ryan Costello’s (R-PA) questions. “I gave a simple instruction to my leadership team to address secure communications in the office, and then a process began.”
Watch Rep. DeGette’s questions below:
This post has been updated.