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.