Politics & Government

Secretary Kempthorne leaves an executive mark in Washington

WASHINGTON -- Dirk Kempthorne may be back home in Idaho now, but the executive washroom that the former Secretary of Interior bequeathed to his successor is still in use -- and probably will be for decades to come.

The 100-square-foot bathroom, which has a shower, commode and refrigerator, is in the secretary's executive suite on the seventh floor of the building. Last month, the project raised eyebrows when the Washington Post reported it cost $236,000 to build and came with a refrigerator and monogrammed towels.

It turns out the fancy towels don't exist -- "that's absolutely false," said Donald Swain, chief of staff of the Interior Department's National Business Center. But the inspector general's office at the Interior Department continues to investigate the $236,000 project.

The department built the bathroom last year as part of an exhaustive 13-year renovation of the Interior Department's historic headquarters. The bathroom project came in $10,000 under budget, Swain said. Removing lead pipes and asbestos abatement drove up the cost, Swain said, as did careful stewardship of the historic building, built in 1935, and replete with hand-painted murals and custom wood paneling and tiles.

An historic preservation coordinator at the General Services Administration monitored all work, Swain said, and the Interior Secretary's suite is an "identified historic zone."

"This is not a gold-plated bathroom, by any means," Swain said, adding that it is a facility appropriate for a "cabinet-level official in our government. It is not any different than any other cabinet person in the area."

The 1.3 million square-foot building is being renovated wing by wing; those renovations require that the existing executive washroom in the secretary's suite be gutted to make way for an emergency stairwell from the seventh floor to ground floor, Swain said. So they needed to replace the old one with something new, Swain said.

The $243 million renovation is scheduled for completion in 2013. Although the bathroom wasn't originally scheduled for construction until 2011, Swain said, they decided to move up the project timeline to save money. Plus, he said, the existing washroom was a not modernized, "so it really was not functional."

Although the bathroom was installed under Kempthorne's watch, he barely used it. Construction wasn't completed until Dec. 11, just weeks before Kempthorne's tenure as secretary came to a close at the end of the Bush administration.

And while much has been made of the refrigerator in the bathroom, which is underneath the sink, it's merely a place to store cold drinks, Swain said.

"Many times the secretary had guests in his suite, and he says, 'Hey, you want a Coke?'" Swain said. With the refrigerator, "he can give them a cold drink."

The project was approved by the General Services Administration and administered by the National Business Center, which oversees such work at the Interior Department headquarters.

The Interior Department would not allow the Statesman to photograph the washroom. Spokesman Frank Quimby said theydeclined to allow the photos because the new Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, is in the office during most working hours. But he also added that the department viewed the Statesman's request for a photograph as "a bit unseemly."