President Donald Trump ran on the promise that he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. One of the ways in which the president sought to do this was by filling his cabinet with individuals who were not previously part of the political establishment.
Some members of his cabinet, however, seem to be reveling in their new-found fame and are spending thousands of taxpayer dollars to fund their ridiculous requests.
The EPA administrator’s $43,000 phone booth
Last fall, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that the agency spent more than $25,000 on a “secure phone booth” for Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office.
New EPA records reported on Wednesday, however, show that there was much more to the cost than just constructing a soundproof booth. In order to make room for the booth, officials had to make space near a closet in Pruitt’s office. The agency paid a firm $7,978 to remove a closed-circuit television equipment to make room while another contractor was hired to pour 55 square feet of concrete more than two feet thick, at a cost of $3,470. A drop ceiling was constructed for $3,361 by another set of workers while others patched and painted the small area for $3,350, records show.
In sum, the EPA shelled out $43,000 so that Pruitt can take private calls with the White House in peace.
When questioned about the booth during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last fall, Pruitt defended the expense, calling it, “necessary for me to be able to do my job,” despite every other administrator getting along just fine without it in the agency’s 48 year history.
Like most other cabinet members guilty of extravagant spending, Pruitt has recommended massive budget cuts.
The Interior secretary’s $139,000 door
The Interior Department reportedly spent $139,000 on construction for the agency labeled “Secretary’s Door,” according to records first reported by the Associated Press.
According to the report, Secretary Ryan Zinke was not aware of the contract, but when the news wire called the agency to comment on the expense, a man answering phones hung up on the reporter.
That Zinke would allow such an extravagant amount of money to be paid on a set of doors shouldn’t be much of a surprise. According to the Washington Post, Zinke has commissioned commemorative coins with his name on them to give to visitors, and has instated a tradition of flying a special secretarial flag whenever he is at the Interior Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Previous secretaries have had coins, but not personalized ones. The cost to taxpayers is unknown.
Zinke has also taken a liking to military and chartered flights while conducting his work for the government. One trip, which Zinke took from Las Vegas, Nevada to Kalispell, Montana — near his hometown of Whitefish — cost taxpayers $12,375. Zinke defended that choice by saying he could not have made a meeting with members of Las Vegas’ new professional hockey team if he had taken a commercial flight.
During a Senate committee hearing Tuesday, Zinke defended his flights and extravagant spending habits, calling attacks on him “misleading” and “innuendos.”
The $31,000 dining set at the Department of Housing and Urban Development
In early March, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson said in a statement that he was “shocked” to learn that the dining set he had chosen for a little-used formal space in his office cost $31,000.
At the time, HUD communications director Raffi Williams stated that “the agency is working to rescind the order for the dining room set” at Carson’s request and denied that neither Ben nor his wife Candy had no awareness that the dining set was being purchased.
But newly released emails first reported by CNN show that the Carsons actually selected the furniture themselves.
According to CNN’s report, “an August email from a career administration staffer, with the subject line ‘Secretary’s dining room set needed,’ to Carson’s assistant refers to ‘printouts of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.’” The emails do no indicate that Carson expressed concern about the dining set’s cost, or made moves to cancel the order until news of the price broke.
The August emails also reveled Carson asked his staff about the legality of using HUD funds to commission a $25,000 portrait. The New York Times notes there are no portraits of Carson’s predecessors in the HUD office.
As ThinkProgress detailed earlier this month, Carson’s extravagant spending occurs as the agency he oversees slashes affordable housing programs.
The jet-setting Treasury Secretary’s $800,000 flights
From March of 2017 to October, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin chartered seven military aircraft flights at a cost of more than $800,000.
Mnuchin’s travel expenditures were first brought under scrutiny after former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after his excessive use of private and military aircraft for government work was reported by Politico. Price’s trips cost taxpayers nearly $1 million.
Louise Linton, Mnuchin’s wife, also had a part in attracting more scrutiny on the secretary’s travels. In August, she posted a now-deleted photo on Instagram disembarking on a military jet emblazoned with official government markings. In the post she added hashtags to denote the expensive designer labels she was wearing.
As the post went viral, many criticized timing of trip, suggesting Mnuchin and Linton requested the plane so they could have an optimal view of the solar eclipse, which was occurring that day.
An investigation by the Treasury Department’s inspector general into Mnuchin’s travel found that his trips were all legal.
“I see no violation of law in these requests and uses,” OIG Counsel Rich Delmar wrote in the report. “What is of concern is a disconnect between the standard of proof called for… and the actual amount of proof provided.”