WASHINGTON -- Environmental groups that frequently spar with the Bush administration over protecting water, the air, and human health also have collected millions of dollars in government grants, failing in one recent case to properly account for the money.
More than 2,200 nonprofit groups have received grants from the Environmental Protection Agency over the last decade, including those that lobby and sometimes sue the agency.
One of the most prominent, the Natural Resources Defense Council, was cited in a recent audit for failing to properly document more than a third of the $3.3 million it received in three EPA grants.
NRDC used the money to conduct research and education on storm water pollution, and to develop and encourage energy-efficient technology, according to EPA's inspector general, the agency's internal watchdog.
NRDC acknowledges record-keeping errors dealing with benefits, timesheets, and indirect costs. It cited in part erroneous direction from EPA itself 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 NRDC attorney Mitch Bernard. He noted there was no criticism of NRDC's research. The case is not yet finalized.
Groups such as NRDC, with their stables of scientists and extensive monitoring of environmental policy, often are seen as barometers that help shape opinion on key issues.
Asked about potential conflicts between their government watchdog role and their financial connections to EPA, the groups say that grants for specific technical, research, and education projects do not interfere with their advocacy, which they conduct with separate funds.
''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," said Charles Miller, communications director for Environmental Defense, which has received more than $1.8 million from EPA since 1995
Others say such grants pose 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, which 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?"