Public Outcry Leads to EPA Terminating its Media Monitoring Contract

A backlash over a contract the EPA had with a private firm for media monitoring services has led to both parties canceling the agreement.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cancelled a contract it had in place with a media company for monitoring services, citing too much “distraction” it created to continue forward with the arrangement.

The Washington Examiner reported that the agreement had been terminated, noting that the EPA’s plan to use the third party service created such a fierce media and political backlash that it led to the company and agency mutually deciding to part ways.

About the Contract

The EPA recently hired Definers Public Affairs to provide media monitoring services for the agency. According to a copy of the contract published online, the description of the $120,000 contract read “News analysis and brief service focusing on EPA work and other topics of interest to EPA.”

Definers Public Affairs describes itself on its website as “a unique consulting firm that translates proven political campaign communications techniques to the corporate, trade association and issue advocacy fields.”

Backlash

The Bid Process

Among the complaints about the contract was that it was a no-bid contract. A formal protest was filed on Monday by the group Public Citizen stating that the work to be done by Definers Public Affairs should have been opened up for multiple bids.

Joe Pounder, the President of Definers Public Affairs, said that four other agencies had expressed an interest in using his company’s monitoring services, but “we have decided to forgo that.”

He posted a formal statement about terminating the agreement with EPA on Twitter, essentially saying that dealing with the government was creating too much of a hassle and the company would only deal with private sector clients going forward:

Politics

Other criticism of the contract said that it was politically motivated.

Definers Public Affairs is affiliated with a research group called America Rising, which, according to a recent New York Times article, is “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 undermine employees who had criticized the E.P.A.”

Two Senators demanded to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that the contract be immediately dropped, saying it “risks further politicizing the agency and is another instance of EPA under your tenure becoming captured by the industry it regulates.”

The letter was sent by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Kamala Harris (D-CA). One of their chief complaints was about the political ties cited by the New York Times article between America Rising and Definers Public Affairs. A copy of it is included at the end of this article.

Involvement of Federal Employees

The New York Times said in the same article that three different federal employees who work for the EPA spoke out against the agency’s actions and direction. Within a few days of their actions, federal records show that requests were submitted for copies of emails written by these employees that made mention of Pruitt, President Trump or “any communication with Democrats in Congress that might have been critical of the agency.”

The Times article said that the requests came from a lawyer in Virginia working with America Rising, the group to which Definers Public Affairs reportedly has an affiliation.

One EPA employee called it a “witch hunt,” but the EPA defended the contract saying that it “filled a need in the media office for an improved clipping service.”

However, Pounder noted that the EPA was just one of several federal agencies that had contacted his firm about its news-tracking tool, known as Definers Console. He said 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.

Pounder also said that agency staffers familiar with the company’s work approached the company about a bid and that he was unaware that Pruitt was involved in the decision to ultimately select Definers Public Affairs.

Pounder told the Times, “I hope E.P.A. employees realize after a few months that we are providing a really great and invaluable service that advances their mission.”

Even if he was correct about the potential value of the service, it wasn’t well received and it’s a moot point now.

Covert Activity Within the EPA

While the employees cited by the New York Times may very well have done nothing wrong, reports in the past have said some employees were more clandestine in their efforts to speak out against Trump administration appointees.

An article published in Politico last February said, “At the EPA, a small group of career employees — numbering less than a dozen so far — are using an encrypted messaging app to discuss what to do if Trump’s political appointees undermine their agency’s mission to protect public health and the environment, flout the law, or delete valuable scientific data that the agency has been collecting for years, sources told POLITICO.”

Such stories of “deep state” activity within the EPA led to FOIA requests and more than one lawsuit seeking to uncover details of reports such as the one published by Politico. The EPA acknowledged that there was an “open law enforcement” investigation into the matter. (See Working to Uncover Covert Activity at the EPA for details)

With a history of reports about apparent secret employee activity coming out of an agency, rightly or wrongly, it’s going to attract attention, so employees shouldn’t be surprised if their future activities are held under close scrutiny.

2017-12-19 Whitehouse and Harris Letter to EPA

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.

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