“This is a witch hunt against E.P.A. employees who are only trying to protect human health and the environment,” said Gary Morton, an E.P.A. employee in Philadelphia, who works on preventing spills from underground storage tanks. His emails were targeted seven days after he participated in a union rally in March challenging proposed budget cuts. “What they are doing is trying to intimidate and bully us into silence,” he said.
The contract with Definers comes at a time of heightened tension between the news media and the Trump administration. Within the E.P.A., the move is also part of a bellicose media strategy that has been helped at key moments by America Rising — even before its affiliate was hired by the agency.
An E.P.A. official vehemently defended the $120,000 contract to Definers, saying it filled a need in the media office for an improved clipping service.
“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,” a spokesman for the E.P.A., Jahan Wilcox, wrote in an email.
Joe Pounder, a founder of Definers Public Affairs, said several government agencies had contacted his firm about its news-tracking tool, called Definers Console, because they were seeking a service that does a better job of keeping up with the fast-paced news cycle, including tracking of live-streamed videos. He said that agency staff members familiar with the company’s work approached the firm about putting forward a bid and that Mr. Pruitt himself was not, to his knowledge, involved in the decision to select Definers.
“I hope E.P.A. employees realize after a few months that we are providing a really great and invaluable service that advances their mission,” Mr. Pounder said.
He and Matt Rhoades, his partner at Definers Public Affairs, also started America Rising. The two entities share several top executives, including Allan L. Blutstein, the lawyer who prepared the Freedom of Information Act requests aimed at the E.P.A. employees.
Some Republicans who previously worked for the agency said the hiring of Definers Public Affairs sent a worrisome message to employees already on edge and fearful of retaliation.
“Mr. Pruitt appears not to understand that the two most valuable assets E.P.A. has is the country’s trust and a very committed professional work force,” said William K. Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under George Bush. “This shows complete insensitivity, complete tone-deafness, or something worse.”
Liz Mair, president of a Republican consulting firm, said that the relatively small dollar amount of the contract was an indication that all the agency was buying was a clipping service, and not some kind of sophisticated intelligence-gathering on employees. But she added that certain E.P.A. staff members actually merited more scrutiny.
“A lot of funky stuff has been going on with E.P.A. staff,” she said.
Mr. Blutstein said in an interview on Friday that his requests to the agency tracked employees who had made public statements critical of Mr. Pruitt. He said he wanted to know if any of them had used agency email inappropriately, or had violated agency rules in some other way — findings that he could use to compromise efforts to undermine Mr. Pruitt’s work.
“It was more of a fishing expedition on my part,” he said of the at least 20 Freedom of Information requests he submitted, most for E.P.A. employees who were union leaders or had spoken critically of agency management since Mr. Pruitt’s arrival.
Even before the E.P.A. hired Definers, the group of companies, political action committees and nonprofit organizations affiliated with America Rising had frequently drafted news releases that put Mr. Pruitt and his policies in a positive light and attacked the administrator’s critics. Many items, including video clips, also appeared on NTK Network, a for-profit digital news aggregator that Mr. Pounder founded.
In addition to sharing at least nine current and former executives, Definers Public Affairs shares an office building in Arlington, Va., with the multiple arms of America Rising and NTK Network.
E.P.A. staff members said in interviews that they had the right, as private citizens or members of a federal employees’ union, to publicly discuss concerns about changes taking place at the agency under Mr. Pruitt’s management. Some noted that “media monitoring” could be expected to include tracking of statements made on Twitter and other social media platforms, include potentially critical comments agency staff members make about E.P.A. management.