Political News

Executive at Consultancy Hired by EPA Scrutinized Agency Employees Critical of Trump

Posted December 15, 2017 8:48 p.m. EST

One of the top executives of a consulting firm that the Environmental Protection Agency has hired to help it with media affairs has spent the past year investigating agency employees who have been critical of the Trump administration, federal records show.

The firm, Definers Public Affairs, based in Virginia, specializes in conducting opposition research to aid Republican Party causes, meaning that it seeks to find damaging information on Democratic political candidates in an effort to undermine their election bids.

A vice president for the firm, Allan Blutstein, federal records show, has submitted at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests to the EPA since President Donald Trump was sworn in. Many of those requests target employees known to be questioning management at the EPA since Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, was confirmed.

Blutstein, in an interview, said he was taking aim at “resistance” figures in the federal government, adding that he hoped to discover whether they had done anything that might embarrass them or hurt their cause.

“I wondered if they were emailing critical things about the agency on government time and how frequently they were corresponding about this,” he said. “And did they do anything that would be useful for Republicans.”

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman at the EPA, declined to comment on the information requests. He said the decision to hire Definers, which signed a $120,000 no-bid contract to monitor and collect news coverage about the agency, was solely financial. The EPA previously contracted with Bulletin Intelligence LLC for media services at a rate of $207,000 a year. That contract was open to other bids.

“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,” Wilcox said in an emailed statement. “If you have questions regarding how Definers operates, we encourage you to contact them.”

The contract, which was awarded this month, is part of an unconventional news media operation that Pruitt has set up at the agency as he tries to get a handle on the coverage of him by newspapers, including The New York Times, and criticism by Democrats in Congress and environmental groups. The decision to award the contract was first reported by Mother Jones.

The founders of Definers, Joe Pounder and Matt Rhoades, are longtime Republican political operatives. Pounder was the research director for the Republican National Committee and worked on the presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in 2016. Rhoades managed Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.

The two previously founded America Rising, a political action committee that works closely with Republicans. Blutstein serves as the vice president of Freedom of Information Act operations at America Rising and has filed the majority of his requests to the EPA via that organization.

Pounder said the EPA would use the company’s news-tracking tool called Definers Console. The firm had an improved way of collecting and analyzing clips, he said, noting that America Rising and Definers were distinct entities. America Rising, he said, “doesn’t and will never do work for the federal government.”

Blutstein, in the interview, said that his series of information requests this year targeting EPA employees known to be critical of the Trump administration was separate from the work that the firm was performing for the agency. Instead, he said that he filed the requests on his own, in an effort to try to undermine people who have been critical of policy changes taking place at the agency.

He described it as an “anti-resistance” effort. “I am not doing mole hunts, or whatever,” he said. “I am almost always doing that research on my own.”

The requests focused on agency employees like Michael Cox, who worked in the EPA’s Seattle office and had sent a retirement notice in March to colleagues that raised questions about Pruitt’s management as well as agency employees who had participated in a public outreach program called “Why do you love the EPA,” which tried to build support for maintaining the agency’s budget.

Other employees who were the subjects of such requests included Elizabeth Southerland, who has been an outspoken critic of Pruitt since her recent retirement; Michael J. Mikulka, a Chicago-based union leader; and John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238.

In some cases, like Mikulka, the agency disclosed the records requests without releasing any information, which targeted employees said was because they had not used their work email to discuss politically sensitive matters.

O’Grady, whose union represents about 10,000 EPA employees nationwide, called the Definers contract a threat to all employees.

“With a company like this in play, somebody would be a fool to send anything over the agency email system,” O’Grady said.

Legal experts also raised questions Friday about the nature of the agency’s contract with Definers. Under a no-bid contract, an agency decides that only one person or company can provide the services needed.

Nancy Grantham, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said the agency placed a notice on federal websites to allow other vendors the opportunity to provide documents showing that they could conduct the work. “In this case, one additional vendor responded with their qualifications and the media/news clip contract was awarded to Definers,” she said in an email.

Charles Tiefer, a professor of contract law at the University of Baltimore, said he could see no legal justification for finding that only one company had the qualifications to gather news articles.

“Clearly EPA didn’t treat any other vendor seriously,” Tieffer said. “"There’s no reason on earth that EPA didn’t at the absolute minimum phone around or email for three competing bids and go with the lowest one.”

Tieffer said the company appeared to be hired solely for ideological reasons. “This has crony favoritism and bias written all over it,” he said. “This is not merely letting the fox into the henhouse. This is hiring, at a high price, the fox.”