A top officer from a Republican-allied public relations firm that was awarded a contract with the Environmental Protection Agency has spent much of the past year researching agency employees who have voiced opposition to the Trump administration or EPA head Scott Pruitt. The inquiries, made by Allan Blutstein, could indicate a broader effort by Pruitt to monitor dissent within the EPA.

According to Mother Jones, the EPA awarded a $120,000 contract last year to Definers Public Affairs, a public relations firm founded by Matt Rhoades—Mitt Romney’s former campaign manager—and Joe Pounder, a former research director for the Republican National Committee. The firm specializes in opposition research, though EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham told Mother Jones the Definers’ contract “is for media monitoring/newsclip compilation.”

The EPA is the first governmental client to pay for the Definer’s Console, a technology said to offer “war room”-style media monitoring and consultation.

The New York Times writes that the contract is “part of an unconventional news media operation that Mr. Pruitt has set up at the agency as he tries to get a handle on the coverage of him by newspapers, including The New York Times, and criticism by Democrats in Congress and environmental groups.”

The Times continues:

A vice president for the firm, Allan Blutstein, federal records show, has submitted at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests to the E.P.A. since President Trump was sworn in. Many of those requests target employees known to be questioning management at the E.P.A. since Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, was confirmed.

Mr. Blutstein, in an interview, said he was taking aim at “resistance” figures in the federal government, adding that he hoped to discover whether they had done anything that might embarrass them or hurt their cause.

In the same interview, Blutstein told the Times that the FOIA requests are separate from the work Definers is performing for the EPA and that he filed the requests on his own in an effort to undermine employees critical of the changes taking place in the agency. Since Pruitt took over as head of the EPA in March, he has rolled back at least 60 regulations intended to protect the environment. ThinkProgress reported recently that more than 700 EPA employees have retired, taken buyouts or quit since his appointment.

According to FOIA documents, the individuals targeted by Blutstein’s requests include Michael Cox, a former employee who raised questions about Pruitt’s management in a retirement notice sent to colleagues in March, and Elizabeth Southerland, who has been critical of Pruitt since her August resignation from the EPA and who said in a statement that “there is no question … the administration is seriously weakening E.P.A.’s mission by vigorously pursuing an industry deregulation approach and defunding implementation of environmental programs.”

Another of Blutstein’s FOIA inquiries concerned John O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents about 10,000 EPA staffers. O’Grady told The New York Times that the contract with Definers is a threat to all agency employees, adding that “with a company like this in play, somebody would be a fool to send anything over the agency email system.”

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