As the world reacts to President Trump’s chaotic turkey-shoot politics it is easy to get sucked into the headlines, but miss the real news.
Later today, Scott “Polluting Pruitt” could be confirmed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, after a vote in the Senate. The fact that Pruitt, a man who has sued the EPA fourteen times, could be even considered for the job is a scandal. But it gets worse.
Pruitt’s confirmation is hardly making international news. And that is because Trump is causing so much outrage elsewhere.
As Robinson Meyer brilliantly writes in The Atlantic: “President Donald Trump has a way with scandal. His biggest controversies are so huge, so ludicrously bamboozling, that they suck up much of the attention in the country. The smaller disputes facing his staff can therefore slip by unnoticed. In his three-week-old administration, perhaps no man has benefited from this more than Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the current attorney general of Oklahoma.”
As I have pointed out before, Pruitt “has sued the Agency at least fourteen times, arguing it cannot regulate toxic mercury pollution, as well as soot, carbon emissions from power plants, clean air standards for the oil and gas industry and the quality of America’s waterways, amongst others. Research by EDF has revealed that “in every suit except one, at least one of Pruitt’s co-litigators contributed to Pruitt’s campaign or a political action committee affiliated with Pruitt – directly, or via an employee or member.”
A month ago, I wrote “this is dirty cronyism”. Take just one case of this dirty cronyism that many people would feel verges on being corrupt. As the New York Times reported in 2014:
“The letter to the Environmental Protection Agency from Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma carried a blunt accusation: Federal regulators were grossly overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by energy companies drilling new natural gas wells in his state. But Mr. Pruitt left out one critical point. The three-page letter was written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s biggest oil and gas companies, and was delivered to him by Devon’s chief of lobbying.”
Devon Energy, which called the letter “outstanding”, went on to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Attorneys General Association. Scott Pruitt was its then chairman.
But the scandal gets worse.
Pruitt has deep close ties to the fossil fuel industry and he is trying to keep those ties – and his communication with the industry – hidden.
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Over the last 2 years, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), which runs PR Watch, has submitted nine public record requests to Pruitt’s Oklahoma Attorney General’s office for correspondence between Pruitt and numerous oil companies. The only problem is that Pruitt’s office has been withholding them. Earlier this month, it released just 411 out of the thousands it said existed.
So CMD sued to gain access to the emails Pruitt wants to keep secret. Two days ago, a group of Senators weighed in to the legal action too. The Senators, all members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, had requested the information from Pruitt during his confirmation process.
Rather than divulge it in the interests of transparency, Pruitt had referred the Senators to his own office’s process for requesting documents under Oklahoma’s Open Records Act, a process he had not been complying with.
The letter says: “we write to the Court today because we need to understand whether in his current capacity Mr. Pruitt engaged with the industries that he will be responsible for regulating if he is confirmed as Administrator in ways that would compromise his ability to carry out his duties with”.
And in a major victory, yesterday an Oklahoma County Court judge found Pruitt in violation of the state’s Open Records Act. The Judge, Aletia Haynes Timmons, criticised the Attorney General’s office for its “abject failure” to abide by the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
Now Pruitt’s office has until next Tuesday to turn over more than 2,500 emails it has withheld, and a further 10 days to turn over an undetermined number of additional documents.
“Scott Pruitt broke the law and went to great lengths to avoid the questions many Americans have about his true motivations,” argues Nick Surgey, CMD’s director of research. “Despite Pruitt’s efforts to repeatedly obfuscate and withhold public documents, we’re all wiser to his ways and the interests he really serves.”
By the time these emails are released, Pruitt could well be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. There are therefore calls to hold off the vote, until at least Senators have seen these emails.
“A rushed Senate vote to confirm Pruitt as EPA Administrator right now would be a travesty,” argues Elizabeth Thompson, from the Environmental Defense Fund. “The documents in question are related to Pruitt’s fitness to serve as head of EPA. Senators should exercise due diligence when confirming nominees, and they can’t do that when they’ve been denied access to relevant information.”