Washington, D.C. – Today Food & Water Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to force the EPA to disclose e-mail communications regarding a possible campaign to intimidate and silence concerned agency staff, as reported in the New York Times. The suit comes days after Politico reported that an examination of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s government email account shows he sent only one email outside of the EPA through his official account over a period of 10 months.
The lawsuit demands communications between agency officials, including Scott Pruitt, and Definers Public Affairs, a consultancy that has connections with Allan Blutstein, whose campaign research group America Rising submitted FOIA requests targeting communications of EPA employees regarding search terms “President Trump” and “Scott Pruitt”. Blutstein’s FOIA requests were promptly fulfilled by the EPA, but Food & Water Watch’s requests for EPA communications with Definers Public Affairs and Blutstein have gone unanswered for months.
“The EPA can promptly respond to requests for information from a right-wing opposition research firm, but when it comes to fulfilling our requests for communications between the agency and said firm, they have chosen to obstruct our access,” says Scott Edwards, co-director of Food & Water Watch’s legal arm. “What are they hiding? Knowing what we know about the agency under the leadership of Scott Pruitt, they are likely hiding a shady agreement to surveil their own employees with outside contractors and intimidate them into silence – or purge them entirely.”
The complaint references New York Times articles that document how Blutstein submitted a series of at least 20 FOIA requests in spring 2017 targeting specific employees’ email communications. Many targeted employees had questioned management of the agency since Scott Pruitt became administrator. Mr. Blutstein indicated that he filed the requests on his own, in an effort to try to undermine people who have been critical of policy changes at the agency. But it remains unclear whether or not he was getting the names through public means, or from officials within the agency—a key question Food & Water Watch’s suit seeks to answer.
A company called Definers Public Affairs, a close affiliate of Blutstein’s America Rising campaign research firm, had recently received a $120,000 no-bid contract with EPA to provide “media monitoring” to “keep better track of newspaper and video stories about E.P.A. operations nationwide.” That contract was mutually cancelled on December 19, 2017 after becoming public.
A May 23, 2018 Mother Jones article later reported how the Project on Government Oversight received records detailing that the contract with Definers Public Affairs was signed to “directly support” Administrator Scott Pruitt and senior EPA officials with “an aggressive style of campaign-style” media monitoring.
“Pruitt’s EPA has been devastating for the environment, and their disregard for their duty to act within full view of the public under federal law is deeply disturbing,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Using third-party, right-wing media consultants to investigate, harass and bully EPA staffers seems typical of Pruitt’s tenure in office. Staff and the public deserve to know the relationship between Pruitt, Blutstein and Definers Public Affairs.”
Food & Water Watch champions healthy food and clean water for all. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.
Contact: Darcey Rakestraw, 202-683-2467; [email protected]