Watchdog group calls for ‘whole story’ behind Scott Pruitt’s involvement in Superfund site scandal

As Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt refused to release state auditor's report.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt gives a speech after taking a brief tour of a Superfund site April 19, 2017 in East Chicago, Indiana. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt gives a speech after taking a brief tour of a Superfund site April 19, 2017 in East Chicago, Indiana. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Suspicions are growing over Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s alleged involvement in covering up a possible crime at a hazardous waste site in his home state of Oklahoma. In response, a nonprofit watchdog group filed a lawsuit for more information in Oklahoma on Tuesday against the state’s attorney general.

The complaint was filed in the District Court of Oklahoma County by the Campaign for Accountability. It accuses Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter — who succeeded Pruitt as the state’s top prosecutor — with failing to release communications between Pruitt and U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) about the work of the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Trust (LICRAT), a state group created to oversee the clean-up of Tar Creek, a hazardous waste site in northeastern Oklahoma.

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Tar Creek, one of the first sites in the Superfund program, is still among the most polluted places in the country. In 2006, Inhofe endorsed a plan in which a trust overseen by local citizens — LICRAT — would use federal dollars to purchase homes and businesses in the region so residents could move elsewhere. But that plan was plagued by alleged corruption.

A 2014 report from the state auditor showed criminal wrongdoing within the government program. But Pruitt, as Oklahoma attorney general, refused to conduct an investigation based on the auditor’s findings and took the unusual step of evoking an exception to state freedom of information laws to keep the audit from being an open public record.

But, under pressure from a lawsuit, Hunter on Monday finally released a copy of the long-suppressed 2014 audit of Tar Creek. As the audit showed, a project manager at the Tar Creek Superfund site likely helped rig bids as part of a possible conspiracy to defraud the state of Oklahoma.

The audit concluded that the events at Tar Creek cannot be explained away as poor management or a “clerical error.” Instead, according to the auditor’s report, there is “sufficient circumstantial evidence for additional investigation into a potential conspiracy against the state.”

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Last December, the Campaign for Accountability, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group founded in 2015, submitted a separate Oklahoma Open Records Act request to Hunter for copies of communications between Pruitt’s office and Inhofe’s office about the trust and the Tar Creek Superfund site. The attorney general’s office has since refused to release any documents in response to the request.

Pruitt, as Oklahoma attorney general, refused to investigate the “misconduct and self-dealing” revealed by the state auditor’s investigation of Tar Creek, Campaign for Accountability Executive Director Daniel Stevens said Tuesday in a statement. And then both Pruitt and Hunter tried to conceal the state auditor’s findings from the public, according to Stevens.

And now, says Stevens, Oklahoma’s current attorney general is hiding Pruitt’s communications with Inhofe about Tar Creek. “Why is the state’s top law enforcement official continually willing to flout Oklahoma law to protect Pruitt?” he asked. “The public deserves to know the whole story behind the Tar Creek debacle.”

During his first year in office as EPA administrator, Pruitt has been transparent about his self-professed commitment to cleaning up sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants.

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Early in his tenure, Pruitt sought to demonstrate his seriousness about the Superfund program, created in the early 1980s by the federal government, by touring a contaminated low-income community in northeastern Indiana and a toxic waste site on the banks of the San Jacinto River outside Houston flooded by Hurricane Harvey.

Despite being upfront about his goal of cleaning up Superfund sites, Pruitt has taken a secretive approach to changing how he believes the federal program should run. He attracted criticism for his unwillingness to disclose the deliberations of a task force he appointed to revamp the nation’s most polluted sites.

When asked for the task force’s records, the EPA claimed there were no written records and meeting minutes from the task force’s deliberations. The task force was led by Albert Kelly, Pruitt’s point person on the Superfund program and a political supporter from Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma with no experience in pollution cleanups.

Pruitt’s secretive approach to managing Superfund sites dates back to his time in Oklahoma. In 2006, Inhofe, a strong supporter of Pruitt, helped set up the community-led trust, Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Trust to undertake the buyout and demolition of homes near Tar Creek, which had been decimated by decades of lead and zinc mining. The LICRAT buyout program, which was supposed to help residents relocate, was marred by allegations of corruption and favoritism.

The audit was requested by former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). In 2011, Pruitt sent a letter to State Auditor Gary Jones requesting that an investigative audit be conducted into “suspected unlawful contracting practices” of LICRAT, a public trust and agency of the state of Oklahoma.

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Jones completed the audit, finding evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing. The auditor reported his findings to Pruitt in January 2014, but — without explanation — Pruitt rejected the findings and declined to bring criminal charges.

In what the The Oklahoman newspaper calls a “likely unprecedented” move in Oklahoma history, Pruitt denied Jones’s request to release the audit publicly.

The Campaign for Accountability believes only part of the story has come out with the release of the auditor’s report: the alleged wrongdoing with the contracting and cleanup of the site. By filing the lawsuit on Tuesday, the watchdog group also wants to find out why Pruitt chose not to file criminal charges and declined to release the audit.

According to a report by Politico in December, Pruitt may have refused to release the audit to avoid embarrassing Inhofe, who promoted the plan to establish the trust with federal money, a plan described as the conservative senator’s “environmental legacy.”