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The Washington Post, January 8, 2009

Flushing Out Interior's Bathroom Spending
By Derek Kravitz

Does outgoing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne need a $236,000 bathroom? Or is some of that money going down the drain?

That's what Interior Department investigators are determined to find out. Today, Inspector General Earl Devaney said his office has launched a probe into the bathroom project and "still have plenty of facts to flush out." (Pun intended.)

Kempthorne spent $236,000 in taxpayer funds renovating his office bathroom last fall, installing a new shower, a refrigerator and freezer and wainscot wood panelling, department officials say. Questions from The Post sparked the interest of the inspector general.

Shane Wolfe, a spokesman for Kempthorne's office, said the new 100-square-foot bathroom will replace an older washroom being removed to make way for an emergency stairwell. Aside from asbestos abatement and electrical and plumbing upgrades, the bathroom was constructed, in part, to preserve the office's "storied history," Wolfe said. At Interior, he said, "Preserving historic structures is part of what we do."

As for the refrigerator and freezer, Wolfe said that Interior secretaries hold meetings in the office and could potentially serve guests a cold beverage, such as "Diet Coke," Wolfe said. "That seems reasonable," he said.

The project was approved and partially funded by the General Services Administration, which owns the Interior Department's Northwest Washington headquarters at 18th and C streets. GSA officials agreed to pay for about half of the project's cost, as part of a $243 mllion remodeling of the historic, 72-year-old building. The project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2013, was overseen by the Interior Department's National Business Center.

The $236,000 cost came in $26,000 under the approved estimate. But the amount has struck some as excessive. "At a cost that exceeds the late 2008 median price of a Boise home ($187,300), Kempthorne's bathroom is bound to become as notable as the legendary $600 paid by the Pentagon for a military toilet and the Minneapolis bathroom stall where Sen. Craig was arrested," the Idaho Mountain Express and Guide opined.

Kempthorne, 57, took office in May 2006 after former Secretary Gale Norton resigned. He had served as the mayor of Boise, Idaho, U.S. senator and two terms as governor of Idaho before being tapped to lead the Interior Department by President Bush, a friend from when the pair were both governors.

Kempthorne was probably well qualified to assess the remodeling of his 1,120-square-foot office, designed by former Secretary Harold Ickes; Before his political career started, he served as executive vice president for the Idaho Home Builders Association.

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