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Scott Pruitt’s Claims About Media Tracking at the EPA Do Not Add Up

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Kamala Harris want more answers from the embattled Trump administration official

Scott Pruitt's Claims About Media Tracking at the EPA Do Not Add Up

Andrew Harnik/AP/REX/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON – The strange saga of the EPA and its no-bid contract with a Republican consulting firm that specializes in “war room style” media monitoring just got stranger.

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) sent a letter on Tuesday to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt demanding more answers for why the agency entered into a contract with Definers, the Republican firm. The senators write that the contract – since canceled after an outcry – “is deeply concerning because it suggests a quid pro quo and would seem to violate the law.”

The letter includes fresh details about efforts by congressional investigators to seek transparency for why the EPA granted Definers a no-bid, $120,000-a-year contract – and the EPA’s inability to provide substantive answers. “Despite these disclosures and discussions,” the letter reads, “key facts about how this contract was awarded remain unknown.”

The agency’s deal with Definers was first revealed in December, raising questions about why a government agency would spend taxpayer funds on such an aggressive real-time media tracking service and whether the contract was awarded in accordance with federal contracting law. (I helped break the story while at my previous employer, Mother Jones.) The controversy only grew after the New York Times reported that a vice president for Definers had filed freedom of information requests for emails belonging to Trump administration critics working at the EPA. Definers also has close ties to a Republican outside group that helped lead the campaign to confirm Pruitt as EPA chief in the early days of the Trump administration.

The EPA defended the contract at the time, saying it was $87,000 cheaper than the agency’s previous contractor. But within days of the story breaking, Definers terminated its contract with the agency.

In a May 11th phone call with investigators, EPA career staffers said they were told by the Trump administration’s beachhead team to cancel the agency’s existing media-monitoring contract, and that someone in the EPA’s public affairs office “made [them] aware” of Definers. The letter says that career staffers were unable to recall who brought Definers up to them.

The EPA’s reasoning for hiring Definers on a no-bid contract was equally mystifying, according to the letter. An agency spokesman (who has since left) said the EPA “was not aware of any other company” that offered the “unique services” that Definers did, and that’s why Definers was hired on a no-bid basis. However, congressional investigators said they found multiple rival companies that offered the same services as Definers.

Investigators say that the EPA relied on Definers itself – not its own market research or due diligence – for descriptions of the firm’s “unique” services and for price estimates, including for use in the contracting documents. One such document states that “the C[ontracting] O[fficer] has determined the cost to be fair and reasonable based on information received from the contractor.”

Whitehouse and Harris end their letter with five new questions for the EPA about the Definers deal. They also cite a recent story quoting Pruitt as saying “I care so much about taxpayer money.” The senators write: “EPA’s decision to award a no-bid contract to a politically connected firm suggests precisely the opposite, and your slow and incomplete response to our inquiries in this matter further suggests that you continue to waste taxpayer money and are not being ethically compliant based on your numerous questionable agency expenditures.”

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