Trump’s EPA pick slapped with a lawsuit ahead of confirmation

The Center for Media and Democracy has been waiting over two years for Pruitt’s office to respond to its request.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator-designate, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator-designate, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) is on the verge of being confirmed by the Senate to head the Environmental Protection Agency — but there are lingering questions about his close relationship with the oil and gas industry. A watchdog group sued Pruitt’s office on Tuesday, hoping to force details about that relationship into the open.

“Scott Pruitt has withheld access to thousands of emails with businesses or organizations whose activities adversely affect the environment and other records of vital public interest for the past two years,” said Robert Nelon, who is representing the Center for Media and Democracy in the suit. “His inaction denies the public ‘prompt and reasonable’ access to public documents and violates Oklahoma’s Open Records Act.”

The suit seeks to unveil the more than 3,000 emails and other pieces of correspondence between Pruitt or his staff and oil and gas companies that the attorney general’s office says it has.

The Center for Media and Democracy initially made the request more than two years ago — and they still hasn’t received a response. They have nine open records requests outstanding, the oldest of which is from January 2015.

The Attorney General’s office has told the Center for Media and Democracy that it responds to requests in the order they come in and that there is one request predating theirs.

But according to Oklahoma’s Open Records Act, agencies “must provide prompt, reasonable access to its records, but may establish reasonable procedures which protect the integrity and organization of its records and to prevent excessive disruptions of its essential functions.”

Meanwhile, Pruitt’s nomination is wending its way through Congress. Last week, Republican senators voted Pruitt’s nomination out of committee — despite a walkout by their Democratic colleagues, who say Pruitt had not adequately answered their questions. In his written testimony for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Pruitt repeatedly told senators that they should make a formal public records request if they wanted to know more about his dealings with oil and gas companies.

But as attorney general, he could direct his staff to release documents. He evaded answering questions about how long records requests took to get through the office, even though, again, he could access that information if he wanted.

“He has it within his power to provide this information,” Nick Surgey, director of research for the Center for Media and Democracy, told ThinkProgress last month. “He remains the attorney general of Oklahoma. If he decided that it was important to provide this information, he could instruct his staff to do so.”

Surgey’s group is hopeful that, if the attorney general won’t tell his office to produce the documents, a judge will. The Center for Media and Democracy, represented by the ACLU, has asked the judge for an emergency hearing this week “because of the time sensitivity before Pruitt’s floor vote.”

There is reason to believe that Pruitt’s relationship with the oil and gas industry is more than cozy. In 2014, an open records request uncovered that Devon Energy, an Oklahoman gas company, had drafted a letter to the EPA, which Pruitt then put on state letterhead and sent to the EPA as official correspondence. During his confirmation hearing, Pruitt said that oil and gas companies’ interests are the interests of the state, as well.

Pruitt’s nomination has been criticized by numerous environmental groups, as well as current and former EPA staff, who question whether he will adequately enforce rules that seek to prevent oil and gas companies from polluting U.S. air and water supplies. More than 400 former EPA officials sent an open letter to senators Monday, urging them to reject Pruitt’s nomination. The same day, EPA employees in Chicago rallied outside their offices against the nomination.

“Public servants at the EPA spend each day trying to counter corporations’ injection of dangerous chemicals into our air, water and homes,” Surgey said. “But Pruitt refuses to discuss his deep connections to the companies he would oversee and has repeatedly shown contempt for the Senate’s responsibility to their constituents to properly vet his nomination.”

Opponents to his nomination also cite Pruitt’s long history of suing the EPA among their primary concerns. Pruitt is a staunch supporter of federalism — allowing states to determine what environmental protections they pursue — but as attorney general, he took on little to no role in addressing pollution or environmental justice for his state. He has also been accused of lax oversight of agriculture and oil and gas industries.