EPA chief sweeps office for bugs, installs high-tech locks

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency used public money to have his office swept for hidden listening devices and bought sophisticated biometric locks for additional security.

The spending items, totaling nearly $9,000, are among a string of increased counter-surveillance precautions taken by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who also requires around-the-clock protection by an armed security team.

The EPA's Office of Inspector General is already investigating Pruitt's $25,000 purchase of a custom-made soundproof privacy booth for his office to deter eavesdropping on his phone calls.

On Tuesday, EPA was forced to abandon a $120,000 no-bid contract with a Republican-linked public relations firm after it was reported one of its partners had been investigating EPA employees critical of Pruitt's efforts to roll back or delay enforcement of environmental regulations.

An accounting of Pruitt's spending for the bug sweep and pricey locks was provided to The Associated Press by an EPA employee who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing concerns of retaliation.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended the spending.

"Administrator Pruitt has received an unprecedented amount of threats against him and while The Associated Press attempts to trivialize his safety, there is nothing nefarious about security decisions made by EPA's Protective Service Detail," Wilcox said Monday.

EPA's headquarters in Washington is a secure building, with armed guards posted at the entrances and metal detectors and X-ray machines for scanning visitors and their bags.

EPA paid $3,000 in April to Edwin Steinmetz Associates to conduct the bug sweep. The purchase of the biometric locks, which typically work by electronically scanning a person's fingerprint, was spread over two transactions earlier this year of $3,390 and $2,495.

Expenses under $3,500 are not routinely listed on a federal contracting website that provides public disclosure of government spending.

EPA employees rarely deal with government secrets, though the agency does occasionally receive, handle and store classified material because of its homeland security, emergency response and continuity missions.

Copies of Pruitt's calendar released following public records requests show he has frequently used his ornate wood-paneled office at EPA headquarters to meet with executives and lobbyists from industries regulated by his agency. In many cases, Pruitt has then announced policy decisions financially benefiting the companies with whom he had met.

In an interview last week, security contractor Ed Steinmetz declined to comment on his work for specific clients, citing non-disclosure agreements. He confirmed, however, that $3,000 is his standard rate for a one-day job.

Steinmetz said he specializes in using sophisticated detectors to scan for tiny listening devices hidden in furniture or walls, as well as in other electronic devices such as computer mice or phone chargers. He can also runs checks to see if a phone line is tapped.

"I can't confirm or deny EPA," said Steinmetz, a former police officer who said he has worked as a contractor for about 15 federal agencies. "However, that would be an agency that if you have confidential information being discussed that could negatively impact their operation, they would want to know about it."

Wilcox said that under the Obama administration, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson also had her office swept for listening devices. Wilcox declined to provide the specific details of that spending, including the year and amount.

A former EPA official with direct knowledge of Jackson's security arrangements told the AP on Tuesday that the former administrator did not request that her office be swept for bugs, but said it was possible her security staff did so as a matter of routine in 2009 during the handover from the prior presidential administration. The former official had not received authorization to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

While Cabinet members have routinely been accompanied by security staff during public appearances since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the former official said Jackson did not require that level of protection while at home or making personal trips. Jackson also did not use a phone with special counter-surveillance measures for calls made from her office.

Asked about his custom privacy booth during a congressional oversight hearing earlier this month, Pruitt said the purchase was justified because he needs a secure phone line in his office to communicate with officials at the White House, located just a few blocks away.

Also on Tuesday, a Virginia public relations firm founded by former Republican campaign operatives pulled out of a $120,000 no-bid contract with EPA amid intense public scrutiny of the deal. Definers Public Affairs specializes in opposition research on its clients' political opponents and corporate rivals.

EPA said the contract, first reported last week by Mother Jones, was limited to tracking media reports about the agency and was cheaper than similar services from non-partisan vendors used in the past.

The New York Times then reported that a senior vice president at the firm, Allan Blutstein, has filed at least 40 requests for government files under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act over the last year, many of them seeking emails and other records from EPA employees who have spoken out against Pruitt's regulatory rollbacks.

"It's become clear this will become a distraction," said Joe Pounder, the president of Definers. "As a result, Definers and the EPA have decided to forgo the contract."

Pounder said his firm will no longer work for the federal government.


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

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