Environmental Protection Agency Contract with Firm Linked to EPA Employee Surveillance Has Chilling Effect on Agency Scientists
What Happened: In a no-bid contract, the Environmental Protection Agency hired a Republican public relations firm to take over tracking the agency’s press coverage. The firm—whose contract was terminated days after news of the deal broke—is closely linked with a Republican opposition research group that had filed information requests against EPA employees who in their capacity as private citizens or union members had expressed concern about the agency’s direction.
Why it Matters: Targeting employees for their personal views or opinions sends a chilling message to federal government staff. These actions make it more difficult for scientists to engage the public on issues that the Trump administration has deemed contentious (e.g., climate change) or to speak out about wrongdoing within the agency. Ultimately, such actions stifle the flow of information from the government to the American people.
In early December 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inked a no-bid contract with Definers Public Affairs, a partisan public relations firm, to handle monitoring of the agency’s press coverage. The contract was terminated only a few weeks later after news of the no-bid deal—and Definers’ relationship with the political action committee America Rising—caused public and Senate concern.
The EPA’s media monitoring had previously been handled by the non-partisan firm, Bulletin Intelligence. In stark contrast, Definers was founded by Matt Rhoades, who ran Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and its President is Joe Pounder, a former RNC research director whom the National Review once called “a master of opposition research.”
Definers is closely linked with America Rising, a political action committee whose clients include the Republican National Committee and whose website lists that “America Rising PAC’s sole purpose is to hold Democrats accountable and expose any hidden hypocrisy. We use video tracking research, and communications strategies to ensure they must account for every word and action.” The group’s “video tracking” has included cameramen following climate activists Bill McKibben and Tom Steyer, massive campaigns whose funding source the PAC has refused to disclose.
In addition to sharing Rhoades and Pounder as founders, America Rising and Definers share several executives, as well as the same office building. One of the executives shared between Definers and America Rising is the lawyer Allan Blutstein. Blutstein has filed at least 20 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests against EPA employees who were either union leaders or publicly critical of agency management under Pruitt. The New York Times reported that the sequence of events—Blutstein’s targeting of employees who had spoken out followed by the hiring of Definers—“has created a wave of fear among employees, particularly those already subject to special scrutiny, who said official assurances hardly put them at ease.”
The news about the contract with Definers sparked Senate concern, with Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Kamala Harris penning a strong letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (who had himself previously worked with America Rising). Concerns listed by the Senators included the relationship between Definers and America Rising, both of their significant funding from the energy sector and other industries regulated by the EPA, and the no-bid nature of the contract. As the Senators posed in a query to Pruitt, “According to the contract transaction details posted on the usaspending.gov, the reason not to put this contract out to bid was there was ‘only one source—other.’ Please explain what this means when in fact there are many firms that previously did that work.” Government accountability group Public Citizen also penned a letter to the Government Accountability Office on behalf of two public relations firms attesting that the firms would have put in a bid if an open-bid process were held.
On December 19, 2017 Definers withdrew its contract. In a statement, Pounder wrote that “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. But it’s become clear that this will become a distraction. As a result, Definers and the EPA have decided to forgo the contract. We look forward to continuing to provide our cutting-edge Console war room products to our corporate clients but will no longer work with federal government clients.”
While Definers withdrew its contract, it is likely that a chilling message has already been sent to employees that has stoked fear for speaking out against any wrongdoing within the EPA. This can be problematic in the scientific community – if science is being suppressed, manipulated, or ignored when critical science-based policies require such information, scientists should be allowed to speak out. Indeed, scientists are often the first to identify problems, errors, and misdeeds that stand to affect public health and safety. If scientists aren’t able to sound the alarm when scientific integrity is lost, the public is at greater risk.