The Environmental Protection Agency spent $120,000 of taxpayer money to hire a public relations firm that specializes in public opposition research for Republican politicians, according to federal contracting records first reported by Mother Jones.
Federal contracting records from earlier this month show that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office entered into a $120,000 no-bid contract with Definers Corp., a public relations firm that has done work for Republican politicians like Mitt Romney, as well as Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and John McCain (R-AZ).
Definers officials told Mother Jones that the company would provide services to the EPA to help the agency track media coverage. The company offers something known as the “Definers Console,” which it bills as a “war room” style media monitoring service. The EPA is the first governmental client to pay for the service.
The EPA had previously contracted with a firm called Bulletin Intelligence to obtain similar services, according to Mother Jones. Bulletin Intelligence has no political affiliation and has done no recent work for any politicians or super PACs. That contract expired in February, and the EPA would not comment on why it chose a politically-aligned firm like Definers.
Under Pruitt’s administration, the EPA has taken a contentious approach to its relationship with the press, often issuing press releases meant to undermine reporting done on the agency. Following an Associated Press report on the EPA’s response to Hurricane Harvey — which found that the agency had been slow in inspecting potential damage to Superfund sites from the storm — the agency issued a press release accusing the reporter of having “a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story.”
Pruitt has also largely avoided meeting with media that could be seen as antagonistic to the Trump agenda, instead granting interviews mainly to conservative news outlets like Fox and Breitbart. According to an analysis conducted by Media Matters for America, Pruitt gave more interviews to Fox News than any other major cable news channel combined between February, when he was sworn in, and early August.
The $120,000 contract also adds to the growing list of taxpayer dollars used by Pruitt’s office for unusual purposes. Since assuming office in February, Pruitt’s use of private and chartered military planes, round-the-clock security detail, and the installation of soundproof booth for his office have cost taxpayers some $900,000. This comes as the Trump administration has proposed a massive 31 percent cut to the agency, and as staffing levels within the agency have fallen to their lowest levels since the Reagan administration.
There has been some speculation that Pruitt intends to use his position as EPA administrator as a stepping stone in his political career, potentially running for Sen. Jim Inhofe’s (R-OK) seat should the 82-year old senator decide to retire in 2020. Because of Definers’ history as a political opposition research group for Republican politicians, some critics voiced concern on Friday that the contract could be politically-motivated.
“Pruitt has already taken the millions in contributions from corporate polluters, but now he’s wasting the taxpayers dime to advance his political career and cover his tracks,” Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce said in a press statement. “Refund the people’s money now, Scott.”