The Real Story Behind the EPA’s Efforts to Hire a Hyper-Aggressive Political Operation

New emails show how Definers Corporation worked with Scott Pruitt’s press office.

Mother Jones illustration; Getty

Newly obtained emails reveal that officials at the Environmental Protection Agency were misleading about the circumstances under which they hired a Republican opposition research firm known for its aggressiveness and willingness to sling mud. They also show the inner workings of a government press office hijacked by political operatives who adopted a combative attitude to the press, seeking to generate rosy headlines from sympathetic outlets while simultaneously lashing out at reporters and whistleblowers who criticized the agency, including by planting negative stories about them.

The EPA’s hiring of Definers Public Affairs stood out in the staid world of government contracting, where any appearance of explicit partisanship of the kind the organization specializes in is studiously avoided. Definers’ reputation as partisan and hyper-aggressive has recently helped embroil Facebook in scandal after it was revealed that despite trying to project an inoffensive and bipartisan image in Washington, the Silicon Valley giant had secretly hired the firm to disparage its Washington critics. The lines of attack included spreading supposed evidence showing that opposition to Facebook was fueled by liberal donor George Soros.

After Mother Jones revealed the existence of the EPA’s $120,000 Definers contract in December 2017, the agency’s press office fought back, claiming the contract had been awarded through the agency’s Office of Acquisition Management after a competitive bidding process based solely on cost considerations. “The contract award was handled through the EPA Office of Acquisition Management and was $87,000 cheaper than our previous media monitoring vendor while offering 24-7 news alerts once a story goes public,” then-EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told Mother Jones last year.

This is not completely true. 

It is only one of the findings that appear in thousands of pages of internal EPA emails reviewed by Mother Jones that contradict the reasons Wilcox said the contract had been awarded. Moreover, the emails provide a detailed picture of how the Trump administration immediately and aggressively tried to realign the agency and route taxpayer dollars for partisan purposes. The campaign to undermine environmental enforcement and oversight at the EPA has not ended simply because Scott Pruitt and several of his staff have left the agency.

“One of the main reasons that we have a corps of career government contract personnel is to keep the political people away from giving the taxpayer money out to political cronies,” Charles Tiefer, a professor of contract law at the University of Baltimore, explains. “Politicizing the award of contracts by mugging the career people is the definition of corruption. What the political people made the career people do this time was more like a banana republic than the United States.”

For the Trump administration, politicizing government practices is the norm. But the EPA, an agency that some conservatives, including Scott Pruitt, believe should be eliminated, has long provided a special window into how far the administration is willing to go to assert overt partisanship and override recalcitrant career staff in ways that alter the daily work of government.

Definers was one key piece of that strategy inside the EPA. The Virginia-based PR firm has worked for political and corporate clients alike—Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee, the United Arab Emirates, and America Rising PAC—promising them its “full-service war room,” manned by Republican staffers who bring a unique approach of “intelligence gathering and opposition work.” In fulfilling that mission, Definers was caught filing Freedom of Information Act requests for the emails of EPA career staffers who spoke out publicly against Pruitt.

Definers is linked to a deeply interconnected network of conservative political groups run by Joe Pounder, a former campaign staffer for Rubio who has been described as “a master of opposition research,” and founded by Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager. It lists the same Virginia address as the America Rising PAC and America Rising Squared, a nonprofit that has sent staff to ambush and film environmental activists like Tom Steyer and Bill McKibben. On its website, America Rising Corp.—a separate entity from American Rising Squared, which doesn’t have to disclose donors—describes itself as “an opposition research and communications firm whose mission is to help its clients defeat Democrats.” The news aggregator Need to Know Network (NTK), which purports to “work with partners and organizations to provide content that is unique and original to our audience,” was founded by Pounder and other operatives and shares staff and offices with Pounder and Rhoades’ other political entities.

Obtained by the Sierra Club from a FOIA request, the EPA emails show that the press office was interested in Definers and working with NTK from the start, disregarding the cost and concerns about the uncompetitive bid raised by career staff. While one group sought a $120,000 contract, another posted flattering coverage of Pruitt.

A former employee of the EPA’s Office of General Counsel told Mother Jones that the “whole notion that the agency is using a group like Definers and [NTK] and manipulating the media coverage of its activities” in ways the public isn’t aware of could have violated Congress’ appropriations law prohibiting the EPA from using funds for propaganda and publicity purposes. “Somebody reads a story and thinks it’s a straight news story, when in fact the agency is putting out misleading information that’s very offensive and probably violates the Appropriations Act,” the former staffer said.

Jahan Wilcox, a senior strategic adviser in its press office, came from the world of political operatives, working for Rubio’s presidential campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee before being tapped by the EPA. Wilcox did not return a request for comment, nor did Definers or NTK. The EPA’s normal operations have been affected by the government shutdown and also did not return a request for comment.

Shortly after he was appointed to the EPA in March 2017, Wilcox made his first contact with NTK. “With the 100 Days of the Trump Administration coming up, we were curious if Need To Know (NTK) news would like to report on the accomplishments of Scott Pruitt and the EPA?” he emailed Jeff Bechdel, communications director for America Rising PAC and managing editor for NTK the month he arrived.

NTK, working off a set of talking points about the EPA’s intended rollbacks provided by Wilcox “and other stories out there,” wrote the story, “How Scott Pruitt is Reshaping the EPA in the First 100 Days,” which the EPA in turn shared on social media as laudatory coverage of Pruitt. Wilcox forwarded the story to his colleagues, adding, “I know huge.”

From January to November 2017, NTK ran about two dozen positive stories about Pruitt. One included him on a list of “3 Possible Replacements for AG Sessions if he Returns to the Senate.” Others attacked critics, like in “Dem Senator Files Bogus Complaint Against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt,” and touted wins, like in “Pebble Mine Settlement Huge Win for Jobs, Trump, and Pruitt.”

The EPA faithfully pushed the stories out on its social-media feeds and in its news clips. “Still waiting on us to tweet out this story from NTK,” Wilcox emailed the comms staff regarding May story “Pruitt Promises to Put States Back in the Driver’s Seat on Regulations.”

When Pounder approached the EPA on May 19, he identified himself in the memo he sent to Wilcox pitching Definers as a potential vendor as the president of America Rising Corp. Wilcox and other political appointees immediately warmed up to the idea of hiring Definers, and they pushed EPA career staff to hire them. Career EPA staff raised concerns about the contract, including that it had not gone through a competitive bidding process, but the political staff dismissed those concerns and pressured contracting officials throughout July and August 2017 to complete the deal.

As the months dragged on without Definers being hired, Wilcox and other political staff repeatedly questioned career employees about the holdup. When told that the effort to hire Definers had slowed because the company wasn’t even registered as a federal contractor and seemed reluctant to do so, Wilcox forwarded the explanation to Pounder. Shortly after, Pounder sent Wilcox a screenshot showing that the company was now officially registered.

According to these emails, the costs associated with the contract were hardly discussed because there was no competitive bidding process. Political appointee Liz Bowman, the EPA’s top spokesperson, complained at one point that George Hull, one of their career colleagues who was responsible for overseeing the contract, “has been dragging on for weeks and weeks.”

“I don’t care how this happens but we need to make this happen as quickly as possible,” Wilcox emailed Hull in June. Hull replied at another point, “We cannot move forward without going through a competitive bidding process,” including a presentation about the product. Wilcox at first dismissed the importance of a demonstration, saying, “I know the quality of their product.” Pounder eventually spoke with a career staffer about the service.

 

Tiefer acknowledges that while there might have been a legitimate need for a clipping service, Wilcox or any other political staff should not determine the contracting requirements. Career employees are required to vet potential contractors, and Tiefer says he doubts that, given Definers’ background in aggressive political opposition work, the company would have been chosen without interference from the political appointees.

“I have been teaching government contracting for over 20 years, and I have never seen a political operative firm getting a government contract,” Tiefer says.

Wilcox also was in touch with NTK throughout this period. He emailed Bechdel about an exchange with Eric Lipton of the New York Times, who had reached out to the EPA to confirm details for a story in October 2017. The EPA responded with neither a confirmation nor denial, instead linking to other outlets. Wilcox then framed the story for NTK. “You can report that the New York Times is calling USA Today ‘Fake News,'” he wrote. “Let me know if you are interested in this.” Bechdel passed on the pitch.

Finally, in early December, the EPA formally approved the Definers contract for $120,000. As soon as Mother Jones broke the story, the EPA faced mounting questions about the nature of the award. When Mother Jones sent questions to the EPA last year, Bowman immediately emailed Pruitt chief of staff Ryan Jackson and enforcement adviser Susan Bodine, claiming she knew “exactly where this leak came from.”

As Definers and the EPA faced calls for an Inspector General audit and for a Government Accountability Office investigation, the EPA and Definers decided it wasn’t worth the negative publicity. Five days after the report, and six months after Wilcox first advocated the contract, the EPA and Definers mutually agreed to cancel it. Definers said it would forgo contracts under negotiation with at least four other government agencies, including the Department of Education. By then, Pruitt’s trickle of controversies—chartered and first-class flights, a private phone booth, a 24/7 security detail, blurred lines between campaigning and government business—were already becoming regular headlines.

When the mounting investigations into whether he exploited his government position for other gain became too much of a liability, Pruitt resigned from the administration and was replaced by Andrew Wheeler in July. The EPA press shop saw high turnover as well. Wilcox resigned within days of Pruitt’s departure, and was most recently working for Wisconsin Republican Leah Vukmir’s unsuccessful campaign to defeat Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

But others from Pruitt’s time remain, and even though the EPA’s media tactics may not be as aggressive as they once were, some of its earlier strategy still continues.

That was clear in late November, when the Trump administration released a thoroughly vetted National Climate Assessment, authored by 13 agencies including EPA scientists. Wheeler responded to the report with a dog whistle, arguing that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Obama administration told the report’s authors to only look at the worst-case scenario of global warming. The echo chamber kicked in: By the end of the day, the Koch-funded Daily Caller had supposedly proved Wheeler’s point (in a story disputed by the report’s authors), and the EPA blasted it out as a “Fact Check” news alert.