New Mexico senator probing EPA chief’s $25,000 privacy booth

WASHINGTON—U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico is investigating why EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is spending $25,000 on a secure phone booth when roughly one-third of the federal agency’s budget is on the chopping block.

Udall is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget.

“I am concerned that this purchase undermines the transparency the American people expect of our nation’s environmental regulator and that it was unnecessary and duplicative,” Udall wrote in a Thursday letter asking Pruitt to provide answers to six specific questions to his subcommittee and the EPA inspector general.

EPA officials had signed a $24,570 contract with a Virginia company for a privacy booth for the administrator to be completed by Oct. 9, according to The Washington Post and other media outlets. An EPA spokeswoman referred to the booth as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF).

“I understand that EPA already has a fully functioning SCIF and that there are only limited needs for EPA personnel to conduct secure communications,” Udall wrote.

He asked for a response from Pruitt by Oct. 13.

In the same letter, Udall said he had directed the EPA inspector general to perform an audit of the agency’s compliance with all federal laws and regulations related to travel. That examination, he said, is in response to reports that Pruitt had opted for chartered aircraft when less expensive work travel options might have been available.

President Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint released in March called for slicing EPA’s funding to $5.7 billion from the $8.1 billion allotted by the Obama administration for fiscal year 2017.

However, the final 2018 numbers are in limbo because Congress adopted a continuing resolution earlier this month instead of completing work on appropriations bills. The continuing resolution, which circumvents an Oct. 1 shutdown, funds the federal government at 2017 levels until Dec. 8.

Udall noted that Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, has emphasized a goal of returning the EPA to what he calls its “core mission.”

“I strongly disagree that this goal can be achieved via your budget proposal” to eliminate or cut environmental programs, Udall wrote. “However, I do think we can both agree that a fundamental part of any federal agency’s ‘core mission’ must be the proper and responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”

Oct. 5 Update: Democratic leaders of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee are asking EPA inspector general Arthur Elkins Jr. to “investigate alleged waste, fraud, and abuse … related to the installation of  a ‘privacy booth’ in Administrator Pruitt’s office.”

Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the committee, joined Paul Tonko of New York and Diana DeGette of Colorado in outlining six specific questions for Elkins to answer. The inquiries center on whether the purchase of the soundproof communications booth was in compliance with the agency’s policies and procedures.

“If misused, and this facility is in fact a private communications booth, then this action would represent the latest action in a troubling pattern of secrecy and distrust at the EPA under Administrator Pruitt’s leadership,” the legislators wrote. Read the letter here.

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a Washington, D.C.-based, award-winning energy and environment reporter. As a staff writer for InsideClimate News, her groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. An e-book version of the narrative won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Elizabeth, who started her career at daily newspapers in Vermont and Wisconsin, has served as a Washington correspondent for Crain Communications, Penton Media, and most recently, Energy Intelligence. Her freelance news reports and features have also appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine; Washingtonian magazine; Intelligent Utility magazine; Outdoor America (magazine of the Izaak Walton League); the journal Appalachia; Capital Community News; the Gulf of Maine Times; Mizzou, the alumni magazine for the University of Missouri; Lore, the magazine of the Milwaukee Public Museum; and Nature Conservancy magazine Elizabeth’s latest reporting venture is Renewal News, a start-up that explores the intersection of nature, labor and energy. The idea is to tell stories about how U.S. communities are evolving as climate change forces all sectors to re-examine their relationship with a fossil-fuel dominant economy.

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