Policy

EPA Ends Media Research Deal With GOP-Tied Firm Amid Complaints

Whitehouse: ‘Powerful odor’ surrounds contract

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is raising questions about a media services company with ties to political action committee America Rising. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A $120,000 no-bid contract the EPA awarded to a Republican-affiliated group to provide media monitoring services has been terminated after reports it was seeking emails of agency employees.

The group awarded the contract, Definers Public Affairs, has employees previously or currently affiliated with America Rising, a prominent political action committee that performs opposition research for Republican candidates.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Kamala Harris complained about Definers’ ties to America Rising after Mother Jones and The New York Times reported on public records requests made by a Definers executive, Allan Blutstein, seeking the emails of EPA employees who may have spoken out about the agency’s direction under Trump. The EPA employees told the Times they viewed the requests as attempts to intimidate or bully them into silence.

The two Democrats, members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Tuesday that the agency should terminate the contract.

“EPA’s contract with Definers risks further politicizing the agency and is another instance of EPA under your tenure becoming captured by the industry it regulates,” Whitehouse and Harris wrote.

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The Environmental Working Group and the left-leaning American Oversight watchdog group on Monday urged the EPA Office of Inspector General to look into why the agency awarded the contract without bidding, and consumer advocacy group Public Citizen filed a protest Tuesday with the Government Accountability Office about the contract on behalf of two communications agencies that “would have offered a bid” had they been asked. The protest requested the contract be rescinded.

In a statement, Definers President Joe Pounder said his firm and the EPA “decided to forgo the contract” because it had become a “distraction.”

“Definers offered EPA a better and more efficient news clipping service that would give EPA’s employees real-time news at a lower cost than what previous Administrations paid for more antiquated clipping services,” Pounder said in the statement.

“How we consume our news has changed, and we hope to find a vendor that can provide us with real-time news clips at a rate that is cheaper than our previous vendor,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said Tuesday in an email.

The single-time award on Dec. 7 is listed on usaspending.gov’s database of recipients of funds from the EPA. The award’s page says the money is for providing “news analysis and brief service focusing on EPA work and other topics of interest to EPA.”

America Rising had taken steps in support of Pruitt’s confirmation, according to Whitehouse and Harris. But when the Pruitt responded to a question for the record from Whitehouse seeking communications the nominee had with America Rising, he said he was “not aware of any such correspondence,” an answer Whitehouse and Harris on Tuesday called “dubious.”

Whitehouse is one of a few Democratic senators whose communications with certain EPA employees Blutstein is seeking through FOIA requests. The requests, the two Democrats wrote, are “an apparent effort to uncover ‘moles’ within EPA.”

“It’s laughable to say that Administrator Pruitt’s contract with an arm of a Republican attack machine — one that’s backed by fossil fuel interests and dark money — was based on their great news clips,” Whitehouse said through a spokesman following news of the contract’s termination. “Given the powerful odor surrounding this contract, the EPA had to withdraw. Administrator Pruitt must stop the politicization of an agency charged with protecting the health and safety of the American people from polluters.”

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