Allan Blutstein, a top official from a Republican-allied public affairs firm recently awarded a contract by the Environmental Protection Agency, has spent the past year digging up opposition research on EPA employees who have voiced opposition to the Trump administration or the agency's head, Scott Pruitt. Blutstein's actions may be indicative of a broader effort by Pruitt to monitor dissent within the agency that he runs.
According to Mother Jones, the agency awarded a $120,000 contract to Definers Public Affairs, a public relations firm, this month. Definers was founded by Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney's former campaign manager, and Joe Pounder, a former research director of the Republican National Committee. While the public affairs firm specializes in opposition research, among other things, EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham told Mother Jones that the contract was awarded to Definers simply to perform "media monitoring/newsclip compilation."
But records related to Blutstein, Definers' vice president, indicate that there might be more to the contract. According to The New York Times, Blutstein submitted at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests related to EPA employees over the past year. Many of these requests reportedly targeted officials in the agency who may oppose EPA administrator Scott Pruitt or President Trump.
Since Pruitt, formerly Oklahoma's attorney general, was appointed to head the EPA, his record has been criticized by environmental activists. Working under President Trump, Pruitt has rolled back at least 60 regulations intended to protect the environment and openly declared his intention to "dismantle" the very agency that he oversees. Now, it seems he may also be leading internal efforts to target employees that have challenged him.
According to FOIA documents, the individuals targeted by Blutstein's include Michael Cox, a former EPA climate change adviser who left the agency in March; Mike Shapiro, the former acting assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Water; Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality; and several individuals involved with a labor union that represents EPA agency employees. All of these individuals had a record of questioning the current administration in one way or another.
Since Pruitt arrived, a number of longtime EPA employees have left the agency in a public fashion, making no effort to hide their discontent with the new administrator. Cox's resignation letter circulated quickly on the internet when he departed in March. In August, a top EPA official named Elizabeth Southerland wrote in a widely shared statement:
There is no question ... the administration is seriously weakening EPA's mission by vigorously pursuing an industry deregulation approach and defunding implementation of environmental programs.
Southerland was also the target of one of Blutstein's FOIA requests.
It is no surprise, given the public criticisms directed at Pruitt, that he is taking action to monitor potential dissenting employees and their relationship with the media. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said such efforts have not only tracked press activity, noting that Definers also FOIA'd her and two other authors of the National Climate Assessment.
In a statement to The New York Times, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox insisted that the decision to hire Definers was purely financial, noting, that "Definers was awarded the contract to do our press clips at a rate that is $87,000 cheaper than our previous vendor and they are providing no other services."
Some, though, see the contract as a heavy-handed move by the EPA to silence dissent. In a tweet, former Obama strategist David Axelrod called the move "another entry from the authoritarian handbook."
On Thursday, ThinkProgress reported that more than 700 EPA employees have left since Pruitt took over, due to buyouts or general disagreements with the general direction that the Trump administration is taking the environmental agency.