Political News

EPA buys Pruitt a special booth for secret communications

Posted September 27

— The Environmental Protection Agency is spending nearly $25,000 to provide Administrator Scott Pruitt something none of his predecessors have had — a custom soundproof booth for making private phone calls.

EPA did not respond to questions on Wednesday from The Associated Press about the government contract for the "privacy booth for the administrator" ordered last month, according to a summary of the contract listed in a federal procurement database. The contract for the booth, due for delivery by Oct. 9, was first reported by The Washington Post.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told the newspaper that the booth would serve as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, known as a SCIF, which are secure rooms used to house computers and equipment for communicating over classified government networks.

"Federal agencies need to have one of these so that secured communications, not subject to hacking from the outside, can be held," Bowman said.

But former EPA officials told AP that explanation doesn't make much sense.

There is already a SCIF at EPA headquarters in Washington where officials with the appropriate levels of security clearance can go to access classified information. EPA employees rarely deal with government secrets. The agency does occasionally receive, handle and store classified material because of its homeland security, emergency response and continuity missions.

Stan Meiburg, who served as EPA's acting deputy administrator until earlier this year, said he only ever needed to enter a SCIF a handful of occasions each year.

"It's a head scratcher, for sure," Meilburg said of Pruitt's cone of silence. "I'm having trouble figuring out what could be the possible business case for this."

The booth ordered for Pruitt is being built by Acoustical Solutions, a Richmond, Va.-based company that sells more economical versions retailing for about $5,000, designed for people taking hearing tests. The company's president, Joe Niemann, declined to discuss what modifications were being made for Pruitt's special order.

"We shouldn't talk about our customers," Niemann said.

Liz Purchia Gannon, who worked as EPA's chief spokeswoman during the Obama administration, called Pruitt's purchase "bizarre."

"It seems like the height of paranoia," Purchia Gannon said. "As someone who spent a lot of time in the administrator's office, I can tell you that there was nothing like this previously."

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Follow Associated Press environmental writer Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck

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