EPA Nominee Pruitt Sued by Watchdog Group for Emails With Fossil Fuel Backers

The Center for Media and Democracy, after waiting up to two years for access to Pruitt's communications as Oklahoma AG, sues as his confirmation as EPA chief looms.

EPA nominee Scott Pruitt faces a lawsuit over communications with fossil fuel companies
Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump's choice to lead the EPA, is being sued to turn over communications with fossil fuel companies and industry groups. Credit: Getty Images

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The Center for Media and Democracy complains in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has denied “prompt, reasonable access” to records of his past communications. Those include emails with fossil fuel companies and related advocacy groups and funders.

CMD, a nonprofit media watchdog group, also filed a motion seeking to restrict Pruitt from destroying any of the documents relevant to the records request.

President Donald Trump nominated Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Former EPA employees, environmental lawyers and others have questioned Pruitt’s qualifications for the job, raising concerns about his close ties to fossil fuel interests that have provided generous support for his political career and his history of repeatedly suing the agency. The date for the Senate floor vote on his confirmation has not yet been set.

Responding to the CMD’s request for an expedited hearing in this case, Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons of the District Court in Oklahoma County has set one for Feb. 16.

“Part of our argument in asking for an expedited hearing was that there was intense public interest in these documents” being produced before a confirmation vote, said Arn Pearson, general counsel and policy advisor for the CMD.

CMD filed seven Pruitt-related records requests between January 2015 and October 2016, and then filed two more in January. The first request was for Pruitt’s email correspondence with multiple fossil fuel companies, such as Peabody Energy and Devon Energy, and energy-related advocacy and funding groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries.

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office has said for months it would soon provide about 3,000 emails to CMD relating to this request. More recently, Oklahoma officials have said their response is “imminent.” Pearson told InsideClimate News he hopes this means the emails will be handed over before next week’s hearing.

“The Office of Attorney General received a copy of the lawsuit hours after it had been dispersed to the media, and has begun the process of reviewing,” Lincoln Ferguson, a department spokesman, said in a statement. “Just last week our office contacted the Center for Media and Democracy to notify them that release of their request was imminent. The fact that they have now filed suit despite our ongoing communications demonstrates that this is nothing more than political theater. The Office of Attorney General remains committed to fulfilling both the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act.”

CMD’s legal filing includes copies of their correspondence with the state attorney general’s office, showing that they have not yet received any documents for their initial request made over two years ago.

Moreover, Pearson and his colleagues have not been given any timeframe for when to expect the responses to their eight additional pending public records requests, which include requests for Pruitt’s communication relating to lawsuits he has started or joined against the Environmental Protection Agency.

Senate Democrats had asked Pruitt for some of these same communication records in their written follow-up questions after his confirmation hearing. In his response, Pruitt told the senators that they could file their own records requests to access this information. Pruitt’s refusal to hand over the records is one of the reasons Democrats twice boycotted the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ vote to advance Pruitt’s nomination. The Republicans on the committee suspended their rules to push through Pruitt’s nomination anyway.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking member of the Senate EPW committee, called it: “galling that Mr. Pruitt, the man who supposedly wants to serve as our nation’s chief environmental officer, refuses to provide the U.S. Senate and the American public with the documents needed in order to evaluate his ability to lead the EPA…Since my Republican colleagues won’t join our demands for these materials, I’m pleased concerned citizens are taking up the fight.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyom.), the chairman of the committee, however, responded that Pruitt had done enough. “Mr. Pruitt has been thoroughly vetted and has provided answers to over 1,200 committee questions,” Barrasso’s office said in a statement. “The Senate has received all of Mr. Pruitt’s required paperwork. Also, the Office of Government Ethics has determined that Attorney General Pruitt is in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations regarding conflicts of interest—the standard we hold all nominees to.”