More than 2,200 nonprofit groups have received grants from the Environmental Protection Agency over the past decade, including some of the Bush administration's toughest critics on environmental policy.
"It may be confusing to the public that with the right hand we're accepting government money and with the left hand sometimes we're beating up the government," said Charles Miller, communications director for Environmental Defense. The group has received more than $1.8 million from the EPA since 1995.
"But the government is a complicated beast. Some of the things they're doing we think are wrong. A lot of the things they're doing we think are right. We're using the grant money to further the environmental cause," Miller said.
One recipient, the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently was cited by auditors for failing to properly document more than one-third of the $3.3 million it received in three EPA grants.
The group used the money to conduct research and education on storm water pollution, and to develop and encourage energy-efficient technology, according to the EPA's inspector general, the agency's internal watchdog.
The council acknowledges record-keeping errors dealing with benefits, timesheets and indirect costs. It cited in part erroneous direction from the EPA about what was required.
"We're not running away from that and that's why we've offered to pay back the money," amounting to some $75,000, once the documentation was corrected, said the council's lawyer, Mitch Bernard. He noted there was no criticism of NRDC's research. The case is not finalized.
Groups such as the council, with their stables of scientists and extensive monitoring of environmental policy, often are seen as helping shape opinion on important issues.
Asked about potential conflicts between their watchdog role and their financial connections to EPA, the groups say grants for specific technical, research and education projects do not interfere with their advocacy, which they conduct with separate funds.
Others see such grants posing at least an appearance problem.
"It raises the specter of a conflict of interest. It's an ethical question," said Roberta Baskin, executive director for the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, an investigative organization that accepts no government, union or corporate money.
"They're supposed to be watchdogs. Does it make you a lap dog if they're funding you? Is your loyalty to the environment or is it to the bottom line?" Baskin said.
The grants have drawn fire in recent years from conservatives, including Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Last year, he said environmental groups were "simply Democrat political machines."
The EPA does not turn away grantees because of their criticism or lawsuits, spokesman Bob Zachariasiewicz said. A new policy requires competitive bidding for any grant over $15,000 and the money cannot be spent on lobbying, political or litigation work.
NRDC spokesman Jon Coifman said there has been no dilemma for his $65 million a year organization whose government grants were less than 1 percent of its budget. He said that is "far too small to have any effect one way or the other on NRDC's broader policy decisions."
The council has sued the EPA 35 times the past two years, he said. "We don't feel that we've given up an inch of our integrity on this," Coifman said.
Other recipients made the same point, but acknowledged potential perception problems.
"It's a legitimate question," said Ben McNitt, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation, recipient of $292,620 from the EPA. He said government grants in 2004 accounted for less than 1 percent of the federation's annual revenues, and the group's suits and vigorous criticism of EPA policies on wetlands, mercury emissions and other issues prove it is not co-opted.
The Pesticide Action Network, which advocates for reduced pesticide use, received a $97,000 grant to develop online information on pesticide use and water pollution, co-director Steve Scholl-Buckwald said.
"In every case we're asking the question: Is this money allowing us to do something we want to do and it or is it something someone else wants us to do?"
The EPA conducts about half of its work, or $4.3 billion in 2004, through grants, mostly to state, local and tribal governments.
Nonprofit groups account for about 7 percent of the total. Besides the environmental groups, many recipients are agriculture and industry allies with keen interest in EPA regulatory policies, along with academic, civic and other groups that advocate on health, the elderly and consumer issues.
Overall, the inspector general has cited grant oversight as an EPA weakness. In a September report, it said the EPA has improved but still needs to pursue greater accountability from project managers. Zachariasiewicz said that process is ongoing through new performance measurements.
By Rita Beamish