Internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency say a sweep for hidden listening devices requested by Administrator Scott Pruitt for his office was conducted with shoddy methods and didn't meet U.S. government standards.
The records obtained by congressional Democrats were described in a letter Monday to the Republican chairman of a House oversight committee investigating ethical issues swirling around the embattled EPA administrator.
The Associated Press reported in December that EPA paid $3,000 to contractor Edwin Steinmetz Associates to search Pruitt's office for bugs in March 2017. Steinmetz also works for a private company run by Pasquale "Nino" Perrotta, an EPA law enforcement agent who heads Pruitt's 20-member security team.
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Steinmetz found no listening devices. Democrats have questioned whether Perrotta improperly steered the contract to his business associate.
EPA's Office of Homeland Security later consulted with a senior counter-surveillance expert in the federal intelligence community who was not identified in the letter Monday and who asked to review Steinmetz's report. The EPA office determined the sweep was "very basic and cursory" and "did not employ the equipment, proper certification, or necessary processes" to be approved by the U.S. government for sensitive facilities.
The bug sweep was part of a larger push by Pruitt to enhance his personal security that included spending on first-class airfare he claims was justified after unpleasant interactions with other travelers. The Government Accountability Office found earlier this month that a $43,000 privacy booth bought for Pruitt to make private phone calls violated federal purchasing laws.
The Democrats' letter describes a February 2017 email about the bug sweep dated just days after Pruitt's confirmation. Sent by a senior official in EPA's facilities department, it said, "the Administrator made a request through his personal security detail" and recounted that the National Security Council provided a number of regulations for such anti-surveillance countermeasures. Perrotta responded, telling the facilities official to await further instructions from "the front office."
EPA did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday. In the past, agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox has suggested that such bug sweeps were common practice, directed by EPA security and approved by career administrative officials.
In an interview with the AP on Monday, Steinmetz defended his qualifications and said he has also done security work for other federal agencies. Federal contract records show a $25,000 contract for Steinmetz's company with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"This is political B.S.," Steinmetz said of the internal EPA review questioning his methods. "I've been in the business 30 years. I don't know where they found this expert, but just tell him I laughed when I heard his comment."
The letter was signed by five Democrats with oversight authority over EPA: Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, and Reps. Gerald Connolly and Donald Beyer of Virginia.