The Environmental Protection Agency has taken the unusual step of putting a political operative in charge of vetting the hundreds of millions of dollars in grants the EPA distributes annually, assigning final funding decisions to a former Trump campaign aide with little environmental policy experience.
In this role, John Konkus reviews every award the agency gives out, along with every grant solicitation before it is issued. According to both career and political employees, Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for “the double C-word” — climate change — and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations.
Konkus, who officially works in the EPA’s public affairs office, has canceled close to $2 million competitively awarded to universities and nonprofit organizations. Although his review has primarily affected Obama administration priorities, it is the heavily Republican state of Alaska that has undergone the most scrutiny so far.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said that grant decisions “are to ensure funding is in line with the Agency’s mission and policy priorities,” with the number of awards denied amounting to just 1 percent of those made since EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took office. “We review grants to see if they are providing tangible results to the American people,” she said in an email.
But the agency’s new system has raised concerns among career officials and outside experts, as well as questions among some in Congress that the EPA grant program is being politicized at the expense of their states.
Earlier this summer, on the same day that Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined with two other Republicans in voting down a GOP health-care bill, EPA staffers were instructed without any explanation to halt all grants to the regional office that covers Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. That hold was quickly narrowed just to Alaska and remained in place for nearly two weeks.
The ideological shift is a clear break from the practices of previous Republican and Democratic administrations. It bears the hallmarks not just of Pruitt’s tenure but of President Trump’s, reflecting skepticism of climate science, advocacy groups and academia.
Although the EPA has taken the most systematic approach to scrutinizing the flow of money, it is not the only entity to do so. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to withhold Justice Department grants from “sanctuary cities” that refuse to hand over arrested immigrants who cannot prove they are in the country legally. The Interior Department, which is conducting a review of its grants, last month canceled a $100,000 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study aimed at evaluating the impact of surface mining on nearby communities.
Yet several officials from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations said they had never heard of a public affairs officer scrutinizing EPA’s solicitations and its grants, which account for half of the agency’s roughly $8 billion budget.
“We didn’t do a political screening on every grant, because many of them were based on science, and political appointees don’t have that kind of background,” said former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who served under Bush. She said she couldn’t recall a time when that administration’s political appointees weighed in on a given award.
Konkus is a longtime Republican operative from Florida who served as Trump’s Leon County campaign chairman and previously worked for the state’s lieutenant governor and as a political consultant. From 2000 to 2006, he was an executive assistant, primarily on scheduling and organizational matters,…