Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office has received hundreds of discrimination complaints since taking over duties of a state human rights commission four years ago.
The office spent more than $650,000 during the past two years to fund its newly created Office of Civil Rights Enforcement, which had authority to investigate discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability and other protected classes.
He also talked about the importance of taking action against discrimination based on age, gender, race and other protected classifications under the law.
“We are committed to protecting the rights of Oklahoma citizens and consumers on multiple fronts within the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement will be part of that commitment,” Pruitt said in 2012.
However, an investigation by The Frontier has found Pruitt made limited use of his newly acquired power, filing at most three discrimination cases based on hundreds of complaints citizens filed with his office. A report from the AG’s office states three have been filed but The Frontier searched court records in all Oklahoma counties and found one case.
Pruitt’s office has not complied with a request made Dec. 5th by The Frontier for records related to the AG’s Office of Civil Rights Enforcement. His office has also not responded to requests for explanation about its record on protecting the civil rights of Oklahomans.
[Read The Frontier’s coverage on Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s nomination to be director of the EPA, as well as other stories about Pruitt.]
Though state law requires the AG to provide the governor’s office with a report each year on racial profiling cases reported to his office, Gov. Mary Fallin’s office said Tuesday it has no such report.
State Sen. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, said the fact that the AG’s office has filed only a few discrimination cases in four years is part of an overall pattern. Fewer discrimination cases are being filed by government agencies with the authority to do so, she said.
“I get calls from constituents that feel that they’ve been discriminated against. The concerns have not have lessened, but the investigations have and the outcomes favorable to the employee have lessened,” she said.
Records indicate citizens are filing complaints with the AG.
A 2014 OCRE report — the only one available on the AG’s website — shows the Attorney General’s Office received more than 200 complaints the previous year. More than 150 stemmed from discrimination by employers. The report does not include data on racial profiling complaints.
The report indicates 30 percent of complaints were allegations of racial discrimination. More than 20 percent were complaints of disability discrimination, 17 percent were attributed to age and 16 percent involved gender.
About another 7 percent of complaints involved national origin, less than 5 percent involved religion and about 3 percent involved genetic information discrimination.
A law signed by Fallin in 2011 dissolved the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission and transferred its duties and $500,000 annual budget to Pruitt’s office. At the time the commission had 12 staff members and records show Pruitt cut that number by more than half when he established his Office of Civil Rights Enforcement within his office.
The AG’s budget grew by more than 50 people overall during his years in office so it’s likely those salaries were transferred elsewhere within his agency. Records show Pruitt’s spent less than 2 percent of its total budget last year on the Civil Rights office while spending 12 percent on overall administration.
Some officials expressed disapproval of the consolidation at the time. They feared cutting the independent commission and handing the duty to the attorney general’s office would politicize the responsibility to prevent discrimination.
John Carrington, director of the commission, told The Oklahoman at the time that merging the office would make it more difficult for state employees to come forward with complaints against their employers because the attorney general represents the state in most cases.
“This consolidation proposal places the Human Rights Commission under an authority which has competing priorities to the OHRC mission,” he said.
Carrington did not respond to a request for an interview.
When the AG’s office announced plans for the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement, that number had been cut by more than half. The new office would have one director and three investigators, according to news accounts.
The office later grew to include two part-time investigators tasked with looking into complaints, two part-time legal interns, a full-time chief-of-unit, an assistant attorney general and one paralegal.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission’s 12-employee staff included a director, supervisor and five investigators.
Fallin said transferring the agency’s duties and budget to the AG’s office was an effort to increase state government efficiency. At the time, the state faced an anticipated $500 million budget hole for fiscal year 2012.
However, it’s unclear if that goal was accomplished, as the commission’s $500,000 budget was merely transferred to Pruitt’s office. Meanwhile, Spending by the AG’s office increased about 75 percent between FY 2009 and FY 2015.
Pruitt also tripled the size of his Tulsa office by moving to the Bank of America Tower downtown in 2015. The tower also houses the elite private Summit Club on the top three floors.
The AG’s office claimed the Tulsa office expansion was necessary to house new employees, including staff of the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement.
Citizens who believe they have been discriminated against in the workplace can file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has authority to investigate allegations and file suit on behalf of the employee.
Citizens can also pursue their claim by filing a complaint with the AG, who has the authority to investigate, obtain settlements or file civil actions in state court. The statute also deals with discrimination in housing and requires the OCRE to accept complaints of racial profiling by state, county or local law enforcement.
After receiving a complaint, the division sends it to the officer’s employer. Once a year, the attorney general’s office must file an annual report of all racial profiling complaints and provide a copy of the report to the governor, Senate pro tem and House speaker, the statute says.
It’s unclear whether Pruitt has complied with that portion of the law.
Unlike discrimination complaints, racial profiling cases are not investigated and are instead sent to the officer’s employer to be investigated.
The Frontier could find just one case in which Pruitt or the attorney general’s office is listed as a plaintiff in any type of discrimination case.
In April 2014, Pruitt filed a lawsuit against a Miami, Okla., restaurant and its owner over allegations of sexual harassment of employees. The case ended in a consent judgment in early 2015.
Lincoln Ferguson, a spokesman for Pruitt, said although the division has filed only a few enforcement actions, the majority of complaints are resolved before an action is necessary.
A former employee of the AG’s office, who would not agree to be identified by name, agreed that few complaints reach the stage of an enforcement action because they are resolved before then. The employee said the unit responding to civil rights complaints was investigating about 100 cases at any one time that fell under the unit’s statutory duties.
While Pruitt is a staunch defender of states’ rights, frequently suing the EPA to block regulations, he fought as a state senator against giving the Human Rights Commission power to investigate racial profiling.
While a state senator in 2000 Pruitt opposed a bill that made it a misdemeanor for police to use race as a basis to single out citizens for traffic stops, searches and other law enforcement activity.
The bill allowed the commission to receive complaints and made the officer’s employer would be responsible for investigating. (An earlier version of the bill allowed outside investigations.)
However, Pruitt still opposed the bill, citing a lack of language prohibiting the Human Rights Commission from investigating complaints and issuing its findings.
He pointed to other state statutes that allowed the commission to inquire into other types of racial discrimination complaints, which could be interpreted to allow it to investigate profiling cases.
Pruitt tried to send the bill back with instructions to add language that prohibited the commission from investigating, but another senator blocked the attempt.
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