Political News

EPA Employees Spoke Out. Then Came Scrutiny of Their Email.

Posted December 17, 2017 8:50 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — One Environmental Protection Agency employee spoke up at a private lunch held near the agency headquarters, saying she feared the nation might be headed toward an “environmental catastrophe.” Another staff member, from Seattle, sent a letter to Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, raising similar concerns about the direction of the agency. A third, from Philadelphia, went to a rally where he protested against agency budget cuts.

Three different agency employees, in different jobs, from three different cities, but each encountered a similar outcome: Federal records show that within a matter of days, requests were submitted for copies of emails written by them that mentioned either Pruitt or President Donald Trump, or any communication with Democrats in Congress that might have been critical of the agency.

The requests came from a Virginia-based lawyer working with America Rising, a Republican campaign research group that specializes in helping party candidates and conservative groups find damaging information on political rivals, and which, in this case, was looking for information that could embarrass the employees who had criticized the EPA.

Now a company affiliated with America Rising, named Definers Public Affairs, has been hired by the EPA to provide “media monitoring,” in a move the agency said was intended to keep better track of newspaper and video stories about EPA operations nationwide.

But the sequence of events has created a wave of fear among employees, particularly those already under surveillance, who said official assurances hardly put them at ease.

“This is a witch hunt against EPA employees who are only trying to protect human health and the environment,” said Gary Morton, the EPA employee in Philadelphia, who works on preventing spills from underground storage tanks. His emails were targeted seven days after he participated in a union rally in March challenging proposed budget cuts. “What they are doing is trying to intimidate and bully us into silence,” he said.

The contract with Definers comes at a time of heightened tension between the news media and the Trump administration. Within the EPA, the move is also part of a bellicose media strategy that has been helped at key moments by America Rising — even before its affiliate was hired by the agency.

An EPA official vehemently defended the $120,000 contract to Definers, saying it filled a need in the media office for an improved clipping service.

“Definers was awarded the contract to do our press clips at a rate that is $87,000 cheaper than our previous vendor, and they are providing no other services,” a spokesman for the EPA, Jahan Wilcox, wrote in an email.

Joe Pounder, a founder of Definers Public Affairs, said several government agencies had contacted his firm about its news-tracking tool, called Definers Console, because they were seeking a service that does a better job of keeping up with the fast-paced news cycle, including tracking of live-streamed videos. He said that agency staff members familiar with the company’s work approached the firm about putting forward a bid and that Pruitt himself was not, to his knowledge, involved in the decision to select Definers.

“I hope employees realize after a few months that we are providing a really great and invaluable service that advances their mission,” Pounder said.

He and Matt Rhoades, his partner at Definers Public Affairs, also started America Rising. The two entities share several top executives, including Allan L. Blutstein, the lawyer who prepared the Freedom of Information Act requests aimed at the EPA employees.

Some Republicans who previously worked for the agency said the hiring of Definers Public Affairs sent a worrisome message to employees already on edge and fearful of retaliation.

“Pruitt appears not to understand that the two most valuable assets EPA has is the country’s trust and a very committed professional workforce,” said William K. Reilly, the EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush. “This shows complete insensitivity, complete tone-deafness, or something worse.” Liz Mair, president of a Republican consulting firm, said that the relatively small dollar amount of the contract was an indication that all the agency was buying was a clipping service, and not some kind of sophisticated intelligence-gathering on employees. But she added that certain EPA staff members actually merited more scrutiny.

“A lot of funky stuff has been going on with EPA staff,” she said.

Blutstein said in an interview on Friday that his requests to the agency tracked employees who had made public statements critical of Pruitt. He said he wanted to know if any of them had used agency email inappropriately, or had violated agency rules in some other way — findings that he could use to compromise efforts to undermine Pruitt’s work.

“It was more of a fishing expedition on my part,” he said. Even before the EPA hired Definers, the group of companies, political action committees and nonprofit organizations affiliated with America Rising had frequently drafted news releases that put Pruitt and his policies in a positive light and attacked the administrator’s critics. Many items, including video clips, also appeared on NTK Network, a for-profit digital news aggregator that Pounder founded.

In addition to sharing at least nine current and former executives, Definers Public Affairs shares an office building in Arlington, Virginia, with the multiple arms of America Rising and NTK Network.

EPA staff members said in interviews that they had the right, as private citizens or members of a federal employees’ union, to publicly discuss concerns about changes taking place at the agency under Pruitt’s management. Some noted that “media monitoring” could be expected to include tracking of statements made on Twitter and other social media platforms, and they feared Definers could end up tracking commentary made on personal accounts of agency staff members and reporting back to Pruitt’s team.

Michael Cox, who worked at the ‘s Seattle regional office for 25 years, learned this weekend from an article in The New York Times that he had been among the employees under scrutiny.

Cox wrote to Pruitt in March — on the day of Cox’s retirement from the agency — to tell him that he was “increasingly alarmed about the direction of EPA under your leadership,” and to urge Pruitt to “step back and listen to career EPA staff,” the letter said.

Just 10 days later, a Freedom of Information request came in seeking Cox’s correspondence on the day of his resignation. The request led to the production of 62 documents, detailing the names of dozens of agency officials, as well as a note he sent to his work colleagues specifically noting that he knew they shared his concerns with how the agency is being managed — names that would now be listed for anyone reviewing the response.

“That does not make me feel very good,” he said, knowing that his emails could potentially be used against other employees.

Nicole Cantello, a lawyer in Chicago who has helped lead a series of enforcement actions against major air polluters in the Midwest, and whose emails also were requested, said the agency’s decision to hire Definers caused great concern.

“Now that they are working for the agency, will they have access to agency computers and perhaps try to come after me in a whole bunch of different ways?” she said. “And will they turn over their opposition research materials on us to agency officials? I just don’t know. It is very scary. Very, very scary.”

Several of the Freedom of Information requests submitted by Blutstein ask for correspondence between agency employees and members of Congress — such as Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — who have been critical of Pruitt.

“We have seen a lot of nefarious activities from Trump,” Whitehouse said. “But hiring a fossil fuel front group that specializes in political hits and is doing FOIA investigations of your agency’s own employees is a new low.” EPA employees are not the only ones who have been subjects of the group’s Freedom of Information Act requests. Blutstein also has sought emails and other information from at least two climate scientists, Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University and Robert Kopp of Rutgers University, who worked on a sweeping government climate change report. The Trump administration cleared the report for publication earlier this year.

“They’re asking for emails related to a document that has already been public and has been reviewed twice by EPA and was ultimately approved by EPA?” Hayhoe asked. “What do they think they’re going to find?”

The nonprofit arm of America Rising, known as America Rising Squared, oversees some of the group’s most controversial work on climate change: deploying “trackers” to videotape activists like Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, and Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor and Democratic donor.

“This is classic propaganda from an authoritarian regime,” Steyer said. “It’s distressing that it would even happen in the United States of America.”

Brian Rogers, executive director of America Rising Squared and a senior vice president at Definers, would not say who paid for the surveillance. In an emailed statement, he said that the firm had focused on Steyer and McKibben because they themselves “aggressively target conservative thought leaders” for scrutiny.

“America Rising Squared is committed to ensuring a balanced debate, and providing a conservative perspective on the issues and actors involved,” Rogers said.

Reilly, the former EPA administrator, said the whole sequence of incidents — and now the agency’s involvement in it — was deeply disturbing.

“These are committed people,” he said of the agency employees. “It’s not just a job for them. To put their morale and their good standing in danger is going to risk losing something very valuable to the government and to the country.”