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EPA chief’s $25,000 soundproof booth? It actually cost about $43,000

WASHINGTON — Before EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt could install a secure, soundproof phone booth in his office last fall, officials had to create space for it in a nearby closet area.

Those preparations didn’t come cheap. The total cost for the project now appears to be closer to $43,000 — not the $25,000 originally reported.

The Environmental Protection Agency paid a Virginia company $7,978 to remove closed-circuit television equipment to make room for the booth, according to a federal database. Officials hired another contractor to pour 55 square feet of concrete more than 2 feet thick, at a cost of $3,470, according to invoices released under a public records request by the watchdog group American Oversight. Other workers installed a drop ceiling for $3,361, while still others patched and painted the small area for $3,350, records show.


In total, the EPA appears to have spent more than $18,000 on prep work, readying the space for a $25,000 soundproof booth that has brought Pruitt a wave of criticism and official scrutiny.

‘‘This is old news,’’ EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in an e-mail Tuesday when asked about the additional expenses. ‘‘In September of 2017 we thoroughly discussed why this secure communications line was needed for the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.’’

The agency did not address specific questions about the work done before the phone booth was installed, particularly the need for the concrete slab.

When The Washington Post reported on the purchase of the booth last year, EPA officials said that Pruitt needed a secure communications area for private calls with White House officials and others in the administration. Pruitt reiterated that point when testifying before Congress in December, describing the booth as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF.

‘‘It’s necessary for me to be able to do my job,’’ Pruitt told the House Energy and Commerce Committee.


But no previous EPA leaders had such a setup. The agency has long maintained an SCIF on a separate floor from the administrator’s office, where officials with proper clearances can go to share information classified as secret. Pruitt’s aides have never specified what aspects of that facility might be outdated, or whether the unit now inside the administrator’s office meets the physical and technical specifications generally required for an SCIF.

The EPA’s inspector general has said it is investigating the purchase of the soundproof booth. New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone Jr., the top Democrat on the House committee, requested an inquiry into the $24,570 expenditure.

The agency’s contract last summer was with Acoustical Solutions, a Richmond company, for a ‘‘privacy booth for the administrator.’’ The company sells and installs various sound-dampening and privacy products.

Typically, such soundproof booths are used to conduct hearing tests. But Pruitt’s version was customized, and so the final product cost several times more than a standard model. ‘‘They had a lot of modifications,’’ said Steve Snider, an acoustic sales consultant with the company, said at the time.

Around the same time, records show, the agency began preparing a small room off Pruitt’s office to hold the booth. The work included hiring a Virginia contractor to install the drop ceiling, as well as a separate Virginia company to pour the slab. A Maryland firm did the patching and painting.

The disclosures were part of a broader public records request for Pruitt’s remodeling or renovating expenditures. American Oversight sued last year, seeking to compel the agency to release the records.


Invoices released by the EPA also showed that Pruitt paid $2,075 to refinish a desk that had been stored in a warehouse, as well as $2,963 for a new ‘‘captain’s desk’’ in his office. In a memo, an EPA staffer wrote that officials had found lower-cost standing desks for Pruitt, but those were made overseas and did not meet federal requirements that government leaders buy products made in the United States.