Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s emails are back in the spotlight after the agency responded to a request for the documents with what watchdogs say is a red flag.
Asked for documents over the course of a 10-month period, the EPA sent only one lone email from Pruitt’s official account, leading some to question whether he is corresponding using a private email address.
While EPA officials have said Pruitt conducts the bulk of his discussions either in-person or by phone, oversight groups raised the alarm Friday morning amid reports that the agency had provided only one email in response to a court order. According to Politico, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in September after the EPA initially failed to respond to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
The EPA’s final offering was a small one: between February and December of 2017, the agency indicated Pruitt sent only one email. In a September 1 correspondence, the official responded to a Capitol Hill Consulting Group consultant who had invited him to a dinner organized by the American Council for Capital Formation. Pruitt additionally forwarded an email on November 14 containing a speaking engagement request, with the forwarding address redacted by the EPA.
In total, the documents provided for the 10-month time period amount to 25 pages containing the two emails and nine text messages.
That wasn’t well-received by the Sierra Club. In a direct communication sent to the EPA counsel, executive director Michael Brune slammed the EPA’s response to the email request.
“With Pruitt’s well-established record of ethical violations, corrupt behavior, and tight relationships with corporate polluters, it is beyond suspicious that he claims his external communications over the course of ten months are limited to a single solitary email. Are we really supposed to believe that Pruitt does not use email himself?” Brune wrote.
“The public deserves answers now about whether Pruitt is evading records retention laws, or if there is inappropriate political interference at some stage of the FOIA production process. It is clear that Scott Pruitt’s secrecy, corruption, and total contempt for the public cannot withstand the light of day,” he continued.
The EPA downplayed the incident. “Administrator Pruitt works mostly in person through conversations,” EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox said when queried about the underwhelming document count.
But Melanie Sloan, who works with the watchdog group American Oversight, told Politico that the EPA’s response raises questions about Pruitt’s private email use.
“When you’re a Cabinet secretary, you have enough people around you to send the emails, and you’re pretty busy,” she told the publication. “On the other hand, I get the feeling Scott Pruitt likes to hide what he’s doing even from top staff, which would mean he’d be likely to correspond on his own.”
Pruitt is known to have multiple official email addresses, which is not uncommon. Two used for scheduling and public comment purposes were excluded from the search that yielded the lone email, with the Sierra Club’s consent. But oversight groups remain skeptical that the emails are the only ones the administrator uses, especially given Pruitt’s history.
As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt used a private email account for state business, according to a 2017 investigation by a local FOX affiliate. When asked during his confirmation hearing whether he had done so, however, Pruitt claimed he had not. Using a private account in the position of Oklahoma attorney general is not illegal, but emails must be included in records requests. For official federal government correspondence, such usage is illegal. The Oklahoma Bar Association is currently investigating whether Pruitt’s comments during his confirmation hearing amount to lying, which is considered perjury.
In April, Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee asked the EPA’s inspector general to investigate whether or not all of Pruitt’s current known email addresses have been thoroughly searched in compliance with FOIA requests. His known addresses are: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com. At the time, the EPA said the agency had complied with all public records requests.
The EPA is known to be slow in its response to FOIA requests, especially those concerning Pruitt’s office. The Sierra Club has formally asked the EPA to disclose all government-related messages Pruitt may have sent via private email, in addition to demanding that the EPA “certify definitively that [Pruitt] does not use personal email or secretive messaging applications like WhatsApp and Signal to circumvent records retention laws.”
Numerous documents obtained through FOIA requests have yielded insight into Pruitt’s ethical and spending decisions. He is now the subject of at least a dozen ongoing federal investigations linked to his lavish spending on security and travel, in addition to his close relationships with lobbyists and industry executives. A number of the revelations have been reported in conjunction with documents obtained by the Sierra Club, along with other organizations.