Appeal Filed Following Political Appointee’s Reported Involvement in EPA’s Sudden Defunding of the Bay Journal
WASHINGTON, D.C.- On behalf of Bay Journal Media, Inc., publisher of the Bay Journal newspaper, Democracy Forward filed an administrative appeal with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) challenging the Trump Administration’s unlawful, unexplained, and unilateral decision to terminate the news outlet’s funding two years into a six-year grant award. The filing comes after reports that millions of dollars in competitively-awarded EPA grants were cancelled following interference by a political appointee, John Konkus, in the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs.
The filing contends that in an unlawful overreach of its authority, the EPA terminated the Bay Journal grant without consulting the Chesapeake Executive Council — a bipartisan group of Chesapeake Bay-area governors and other elected officials from states including Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania — whose cooperation in administering Chesapeake Bay-related grants is required by the Clean Water Act.
“Nothing we have seen explains the Trump Administration’s abrupt about-face on this well-respected, environmentally focused news outlet,” said Anne Harkavy, Democracy Forward Executive Director. “The cut to Bay Journal’s grant was either an arbitrary decision by a political appointee or a flat-out attempt at censorship, or both. This raises serious First Amendment concerns that will not go unchallenged.”
The Bay Journal is an award-winning news outlet that has enjoyed both local and Congressional support and has received EPA funding since 1991. But in August 2017, following glowing reviews by the agency of its grant performance, the Chesapeake Bay outlet received a three-sentence email advising it that the EPA was terminating the remainder of a $1.95 million grant “[d]ue to a shift in priorities.” Notably, the EPA also stated that the termination was not based on any failure by the Bay Journal to comply with its grant terms.
The EPA failed to provide any explanation for a supposed priority shift. In fact, immediately following the Bay Journal announcement, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which is a member of the Chesapeake Executive Council, notified the EPA that they were “unaware of any change in priorities.”
“For over 25 years, the Bay Journal has delivered high-level journalism while helping the EPA achieve its commitment to the Chesapeake Bay’s restoration,” said Bay Journal Editor Karl Blankenship. “We are challenging what appears to be unprecedented political interference with our grant in order to preserve our ability to continue providing our readers fact-based reporting about the Bay. ”
The new administrative appeal was filed on November 20, 2017 and seeks to reinstate the Bay Journal’s grant award in full. Democracy Forward and co-counsel Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP are representing Bay Journal Media, Inc. on a pro bono basis in the appeal.
Prior to this filing, the Bay Journal submitted an open records request with the EPA seeking information related to its grant termination. Due to the agency’s failure to provide any documents in response that request, the news outlet has filed a FOIA lawsuit.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy area,s represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.