California sues EPA over Scott Pruitt’s potential conflicts of interest

State attorney general is suing the agency for failing to comply with a request for documents.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt carries his folder as he walks away from the podium after speaking to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt carries his folder as he walks away from the podium after speaking to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

California’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for allegedly failing to comply with a request for documents detailing how Administrator Scott Pruitt intends to avoid conflicts of interest during his tenure at the agency.

Before becoming EPA Administrator in February, Pruitt had a history of suing the agency as Oklahoma attorney general, challenging the agency 14 times in court over rules ranging from the Clean Power Plan to efforts to reduce ozone pollution. As administrator, Pruitt became a defendant in the lawsuits that he himself had filed against the agency. He also now has the power to modify and influence how the rules he once challenged in court are issued.

During Pruitt’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) highlighted the potential conflict of interest inherent in the nomination, saying that Pruitt would become “plaintiff, defendant, judge, and jury” if confirmed as EPA administrator. During his hearings, Pruitt agreed to recuse himself from rule-making related to lawsuits he had filed as Oklahoma Attorney General only if the EPA ethics office counseled him to do so.

Upon becoming administrator, Pruitt announced that he would recuse himself from a dozen pending cases, including litigation over the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Water Rule. But the recusal left open the possibility that Pruitt could participate in the rule-making process regarding both of these issues.

“Upon his swearing in at EPA, Administrator Pruitt became the head of the agency responsible for implementing the very same rules that he had been working to overturn just moments earlier,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote in the lawsuit filed Friday in federal court. “Mr. Pruitt’s public attacks on the legal and factual justification EPA provided for many rules, including his filing of lawsuits seeking to invalidate them, while Oklahoma Attorney General, raise a question regarding his ability to participate in administrative processes and rule-makings concerning these same rules with the impartiality required by federal law.”

Becerra had previously requested records pertaining to Pruitt’s recusal from potential conflicts of interest under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The lawsuit alleges that the EPA has failed to respond to the request within 20 days, as is mandated by FOIA, and asks a federal court to force the EPA to turn over the requested documents. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told the Los Angeles Times that the lawsuit is “unfortunate” and is “draining resources that could be better spent protecting human health and the environment.” According to Bowman, the agency has reached out twice to the attorney general’s office in an attempt to provide an update about the documents.

Becerra’s lawsuit was filed just one day before the New York Times published an account from more than 20 current and former EPA officials detailing the environment of secrecy Pruitt’s tenure has fueled within the agency. Current career employees told the New York Times that doors to the floor where Pruitt’s office is located are frequently locked, and they are often barred from taking notes or bringing cell phones into meetings. Pruitt has also requested a 24-hour security detail from armed guards, something that no other administrator has requested.

In an emailed response to the New York Times, the EPA’s Bowman denied the accounts as “rumors” and accused the reporters of “[soliciting] leaks” and “[colluding] with union officials in an effort to distract from the work we are doing to implement the president’s agenda.”

In a sharp break from previous administrations, Pruitt has declined to publicize his schedule, throwing a shroud of mystery over his actions and meetings as EPA head. In February, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the EPA in federal court after the agency failed to respond to a FOIA request for Pruitt’s schedule. The eventual publication of his schedule from the beginning of his tenure showed that Pruitt spent much of his first two months as administrator meeting with representatives from the oil, gas, and chemical industries, sometimes before issuing regulations related to those industries. In March, for instance, Pruitt met with the CEO of Dow Chemical just weeks before deciding not to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which the EPA’s own scientists had linked to potential brain damage in children. Dow Chemical is the primary manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, and donated $1 million to President Trump’s inauguration.

But the halls of the EPA and industry meetings are hardly the only places where Pruitt seems to be dodging public scrutiny. For the past few weeks, Pruitt has been traveling the country on a “listening tour,” aimed at soliciting stakeholder opinions on EPA regulations like the Clean Water Rule. In at least two instances, Pruitt has explicitly avoided speaking to local media while traveling — in North Dakota, an EPA spokesman reportedly threatened to call “security” on local reporters trying to access Pruitt at a round-table event.