Watchdog group sues Utah AG for emails showing relationship with fossil fuel boosters

The group has similar lawsuit pending against Scott Pruitt in Oklahoma.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has a reputation for blocking public access to agency records. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has a reputation for blocking public access to agency records. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

A national watchdog group is suing the Utah attorney general’s office, alleging it is refusing to hand over public information showing its dealings with organizations that allegedly have received corporate money, including donations from major coal and utility companies, to set up private meetings with Republican attorneys general.

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed the lawsuit Monday in state court after the office of Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) refused to comply with public records requests for email communications and documents that would show a relationship between Reyes and the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and the Rule of Law Defense Fund, RAGA’s advocacy arm.

The attorney general has attended RAGA events where coal and electric utility companies reportedly paid large sums to have private conversations with the attorneys general. After one such meeting, two years ago, Reyes joined other state attorneys general in opposing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

The Center for Media and Democracy submitted an open records request in March, seeking the attorney general’s correspondence with RAGA and the Rule of Law Defense Fund. CMD describes them as “cash-for-influence” organizations that coordinate actions by Republican attorneys general based on the demands of its corporate members in the energy and other business sectors.

“Reyes has a reputation for blocking public access to agency records,” Arn Pearson, general counsel for CMD, said in an email to ThinkProgress. Last year, the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave him its “Black Hole Award” for his lack of transparency.

CMD said it received only 19 documents and that the correspondence did not include at least 13 interactions about which it already knew. The attorney general’s office argued that its interactions with the Republican groups were “unofficial” political and campaign activities and are therefore not public business.

CMD countered that the documents are official because the Rule of Law Defense Fund coordinated legal briefs and official letters for Reyes and other attorneys general, including one letter warning other attorneys general not to pursue joint investigations and litigation into whether fossil fuel companies and industry groups mislead the public about the dangers of climate change or the viability of renewable energy resources.

“We have filed requests in many states, and are increasingly seeing attorneys general use stonewalling, private email accounts, and ‘campaign-related’ dodges to avoid turning over records,” Pearson said. “We have a similar suit pending against Scott Pruitt in Oklahoma and are considering legal action in several other states.”

CMD filed seven records requests with Pruitt’s office in 2015 and 2016 and another two requests in January 2017, seeking his communications with Koch Industries and other coal, oil and gas companies, as well as RAGA. The group filed its lawsuit against Pruitt in February, hoping to force details about that relationship into the open.

Shortly after Pruitt was sworn in as EPA administrator on February 17, an Oklahoma judge ruled that Pruitt had been violating the state’s public records law by withholding his correspondence from CMD for at least two years. More than 7,500 emails were released under court order in February, some of which raised questions about the accuracy of Pruitt’s testimony during his Senate confirmation hearing. Another batch was released in June.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, left, met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, center, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, foreground, on Tuesday. CREDIT: EPA
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, left, met with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, center, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, foreground, on Tuesday. CREDIT: EPA

Reyes and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) met with EPA Administrator Pruitt on Tuesday to discuss the agency’s recent proposal to rescind the Clean Water Rule, which was finalized by the Obama administration in 2015. Also known as the Waters of the United States Rule, the rule was widely criticized by industry as well as by Republican lawmakers, who called the rule an example of overreach by a federal agency.

In his Tuesday meeting with Utah officials, Pruitt also said the EPA will reconsider a 2016 plan requiring pollution controls at two coal-fired power plants in Utah owned by Rocky Mountain Power. Overall, coal fuels about 75 percent of electricity generation in Utah, according to the latest data from the federal government.

In its lawsuit against the Utah attorney general’s office, CMD states Reyes and his staff “appear to have attended RAGA and [Rule of Law Defense Fund] events ‘in their official capacities and by virtue of the public offices they held,’ and those events included ‘legal and policy-focused presentations and panel discussions, as well as the opportunity for personal interactions with corporate executives, lobbyists, and lawyers concerning matters of public policy.”

The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment from ThinkProgress. Reyes’ spokeswoman Missy Larsen, in an emailed statement to the Associated Press, said the office disagrees with “politically motivated lawsuits and press releases” but does not comment on open cases.

The CMD released a report last year in which it found that coal and electricity companies paid to meet with Republican state attorneys general, including Reyes, just weeks before those top law enforcement officials joined in suing the federal government over the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan is a regulation drafted by the Obama administration’s EPA that requires states to find a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The Trump administration is seeking to undo the rule.

“Attorney General Reyes’ dealings with RAGA and RLDF, including events he and his staff have attended in their official capacities, involve important matters of public policy and the conduct of the public’s business,” Pearson said.

According to CMD, Reyes and his chief of staff, Parker Douglas, attended RAGA’s 2015 summer national meeting at which coal producer Murray Energy, which has coal mining operations in Utah, and utility giant Southern Co. paid for private meetings with Republican attorneys general to discuss their opposition to the Clean Power Plan.

Pruitt, who was Oklahoma’s attorney general at the time, also attended the RAGA meeting at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. Later that summer, Reyes and Pruitt signed their states onto a lawsuit to block the plan. In 2014 and 2016, RAGA was Reyes’ largest campaign contributor, donating $310,000 in total, CMD said.

In its lawsuit, CMD contends the attorney general’s office has unlawfully withheld its records related to the two Republican groups and seeks a “thorough search of both official and private email accounts used by Reyes and his staff.”