The Environmental Protection Agency is canceling a $120,000 “media tracking” contract it recently signed with a Republican public affairs and opposition-research firm amid questions about the firm’s political work and outrage from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The EPA had defended the contract with Definers Public Affairs, saying it hired the firm merely to act as a sophisticated news clipping service. An agency spokesman confirmed Tuesday that the EPA and the company had agreed to terminate the contract. In a separate conversation, the company’s president, Joe Pounder, said the decision was a mutual one.
“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 an emailed statement. “But it’s become clear this will become a distraction.”
Pounder also said the firm would no longer offer the service to government agencies, despite the fact that four agencies had expressed interest in similar contracts.
The reversal comes days after Mother Jones first reported details of the contract with the Virginia-based public relations firm, which specialized in conducting campaign-style opposition research but also offers “a full-service war room that monitors a wide-range of media platforms on a continuous basis,” according to its website. Later, the New York Times detailed how a vice president at the firm, Allan Blutstein, had filed at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests to the EPA this year, many of which sought the correspondence of employees who been critical of the new administration.
Both the EPA and Definers had maintained the contract was simply for a sort of real-time clip service that would keep officials up to date about media coverage in a round-the-clock news environment. They also noted that at $120,000, it was significantly cheaper than the $207,000 contract the EPA previously had for a similar service through Bulletin Intelligence, which is part of the international public relations firm Cision.
Pounder and Matt Rhoades, the founders of Definers, are veteran GOP political operatives, having worked respectively for the Republican National Committee and various Republican candidates, including Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney. They also previously founded the conservative political action group America Rising, whose “sole purpose is to hold Democrats accountable and expose any hidden hypocrisy,” according to its website.
An arm of America Rising, known as America Rising Squared, which claims to combat “big government liberal policies and the special interests that support them,” earlier this year launched ConfirmPruitt.com. In videos, op-eds, fact sheets and a petition, it worked to make sure Scott Pruitt was approved by the Senate for the EPA administrator post.
Before news broke Tuesday that EPA and Definers had decided to terminate their contract, two Democratic senators wrote to Pruitt, demanding more information about how the agreement came to be and urging him to cut ties to the company “immediately.”
“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,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) wrote. “At a minimum, it presents an appearance of impropriety to which you as administrator should never be a party.”
Previously, the liberal nonprofit group, Public Citizen, had filed a formal complaint on behalf of firms that provide similar services, questioning the process the agency used in awarding the contract to Definers. It claims the contract was “impermissibly awarded on a no-bid basis.” The EPA said Tuesday one other vendor had responded to a notice about the contract posted on federal websites, but it ultimately was awarded to Definers. Agency officials would not disclose the identity of the other firm.
On Tuesday, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the agency would continue to look for another firm to handle its media monitoring.
“How we consume the news has changed,” he wrote in an email, “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.”
This story has been updated.