U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt won’t have to turn over more documents detailing his relationship with the energy industry for now, after the Oklahoma Supreme Court yesterday stayed a watchdog group’s open records lawsuit.
Pruitt, a Republican, served as Oklahoma’s attorney general from 2011 until this year and developed a reputation as a champion of oil, gas and coal interests. The attorney general’s office had already turned over about 7,600 pages of emails and other documents in response to a lower-court ruling in the suit by the Center for Media and Democracy, and was facing a Friday deadline to turn over more information.
The attorney general’s office argued that the lower-court judge should have allowed the case to proceed through discovery and other normal processes and that it was merely answering open records requests in the order they were received (Greenwire, Feb. 24).
The state Supreme Court’s two-page order didn’t discuss the merits of the case but said the lower court’s ruling was blocked until further notice.
"Not only was this a patently unreasonable directive, but the AG’s office was not given the opportunity to respond to the petition," attorney general spokesman Lincoln Ferguson said in a statement. "Our office is appreciative and encouraged by the Court’s decision and welcomes the opportunity to present its case so that these records can be reviewed and provided in an orderly fashion."
The decision frustrated Senate Democrats, who tried to delay Pruitt’s nomination to the EPA post until more of his background information was released.
"We just want the facts, ma’am, just the facts, and I think having access to those emails would provide those facts," Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters.
As Oklahoma’s top lawyer, Pruitt frequently sued the Obama administration to block environmental rules at EPA and other agencies. The Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal-leaning watchdog group, in January 2015 began requesting documents about his contacts with energy companies and over the next two years filed a series of requests.
The attorney general still hadn’t responded as of January, more than two years after CMD’s original request. The group sued on Feb. 7. On Feb. 16, state District Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons ruled after hearing about 25 minutes of arguments that the delay was an "abject failure" to follow the law.
The first batch of emails showed, among other things, that Pruitt and his senior staff had used letters and other materials provided by Devon Energy Corp., an Oklahoma-based oil and gas company, to argue against the Interior Department’s rules on hydraulic fracturing.
He also worked with the mining and refining industries on other issues and with conservative think tanks like Americans for Prosperity, which is affiliated with the billionaire Koch brothers. And, contrary to Pruitt’s testimony during a Senate hearing, he used a private email address to conduct state business (Greenwire, Feb. 22; Greenwire, Feb. 27).
Timmons is also reviewing some material from the first batch of documents to determine if it’s exempt from disclosure under state law. She had given the state until Friday to respond to five other requests from the CMD, which were filed later in 2015 and 2016. The Supreme Court decision blocked the release of that material.
The CMD has a good chance of winning the underlying lawsuit, since the state apparently didn’t respond to any open records requests from January 2015 until last month, said Arn Pearson, the group’s general counsel.
"We’ll argue on the appeal, we’ll keep going, and then however that gets settled out, we’ll be back," he said.
Reporter Geof Koss contributed.