Scott Pruitt is sometimes called “the General,” a title fitting the man who has spent six years waging a war against the very agency he has been nominated to lead.
The clash of industry versus the environment will come to a head Wednesday when he faces a nomination hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Both sides appear armed for battle.
“Having Scott Pruitt in charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
Pruitt’s nomination has ignited concerns of environmental groups across the nation.
The Environmental Defense Fund released a six-page list outlining Pruitt’s attempts to reduce safeguards against high levels of methane, mercury, and other toxic pollutants, many of them stemming from oil and gas production or power plants that burn coal.
Energy companies and organizations that joined Pruitt in 13 of the 14 lawsuits contributed to his campaign or PACs that supported him, either directly or through an employee or member, the organization found.
“At the same time he submitted their comments to EPA, nearly word for word, on Attorney General letterhead,” the Environmental Defense Fund said. “We already know Pruitt is a staunch opponent of safeguards that protect all Americans from mercury, arsenic and smog pollution – but we are learning more every day about his tight alliance with polluting industries.”
Though other states joined in some of the lawsuits, emails released by Pruitt’s office in 2014 show he was a central figure among a group of Republican attorneys general chosen to lead the fight against the EPA. The plan was hashed out at a 2012 “federalism summit” in Oklahoma City initiated by an energy industry attorney and partially funded by industry.
In one case, Pruitt’s office provided a copy of a federal Freedom of Information Act request he planned to send to the EPA to an energy industry executive before sending it to the EPA, records show.
Pruitt’s frequent challenges to the federal government made him a national figure and darling of pro-business conservatives and the religious right. Conservative commentator George Will dubbed Pruitt “one of the Obama administration’s most tenacious tormentors.”
The energy industry is clearly elated over the possibility of Pruitt’s winning a post in the cabinet. Last week, a coalition representing more than 20 energy industry and conservative causes released a letter strongly supporting Pruitt’s nomination.
“Mr. Pruitt has demonstrated his commitment to upholding the Constitution and ensuring the EPA works for American families and consumers,” the letter states.
“Under Mr. Pruitt, we hope the EPA will follow the laws set forth by Congress and cooperate with states to advance its mission of keeping our air clean and our water pure. We fully support Mr. Pruitt for the position of EPA Administrator and encourage the Senate to swiftly approve his nomination.”
Groups signing the letter include the American Energy Alliance, the Energy Policy Network, the Energy and Environment Institute and Balanced Energy for Texas.
Pruitt, 48, has refused repeated requests for comment.
In an email to The Frontier, Communications Director Shelly Perkins defended Pruitt’s record on the environment.
“Since AG Pruitt took office, environmental cases have been handled by the Solicitor General’s Unit, which has a distinguished track record of successful settlements in dozens of environmental cases. Under the leadership of AG Pruitt, this team has held bad actors accountable and protected stewardship of Oklahoma’s natural resources.”
Perkins listed accomplishments including negotiating a water rights settlement with tribes, successfully blocking a Texas water district’s attempt to claim water from Oklahoma and “holding accountable oil and gas companies that were profiting off pollution and defrauding taxpayers.”
Pruitt’s office has released a list of cases it claims demonstrate action against polluters.
However, many cases on the list were initiated by former Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s environmental unit, which Pruitt shuttered. The cases involving the oil and gas industry were initiated by the EPA and Department of Justice.
Lawsuits end in losses
Pruitt appears to view the EPA as a foe to be vanquished. In a 2014 Facebook post he noted, “EPA’s War on America’s Energy Producers Needs to END.”
Opponents fear that the energy industry and other regulated businesses with Pruitt’s help might undo 46 years of environmental regulations impacting public health and safety.
“We need an EPA that listens to doctors – that listens to scientists, rather than special interests when it comes to setting crucial health standards to clean our air, clean our water and protect us from toxic chemicals,” said U.S. Sen. Carper, in a release after Pruitt was nominated.
“An EPA that ignores sound science puts our children’s health at risk. Indeed, it puts all of our health at risk.”
Carper is the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
The EPA was founded in 1970 after President Richard Nixon signed legislation consolidating various government functions. Public opinion had been galvanized after the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and after the book “Silent Spring” chronicled the impact of pesticides on human health and the environment.
A review by The Frontier revealed that General Pruitt has launched his own war on the federal government since becoming Oklahoma’s attorney general in 2010.
Under his leadership, his office has filed at least 21 federal lawsuits — 14 against the agency he hopes to lead. Most of those suits sought to prevent proposed regulations on air and water pollution, which he insisted the EPA lacked authority to enforce.
His pending lawsuit against the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, was filed four times after the courts threw it out as premature.
In fact, Pruitt has come out on the losing end of most of these lawsuits.
The cost of the EPA litigation is difficult to measure, as Pruitt’s office claims it is not paying for those legal services. His office has not answered repeated questions from The Frontier about who or what organization is footing the bills. The agency has also not provided copies of legal contracts, which it is required by state law to disclose.
Attorney David Rivkin Jr., a former advisor to presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, is among the attorneys representing the state.
Records show the Republican Attorneys General Association, which Pruitt chaired in 2012 and 2013, planned to operate as a legal strike force to combat proposed EPA regulations. Pruitt was chosen to lead that effort.
The association raised more than $16 million in 2014, with Koch Industries contributing more than $350,000, records show.
Pruitt was also chairman that year of the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a “dark money” group related to the Republican Attorneys General Association. (Dark money groups can accept unlimited contributions and don’t have to disclose their donors but aren’t supposed to coordinate their activities directly with the candidate.)
In response to a records request by The Frontier, Pruitt’s office released figures that indicate it spent about $1 million on outside legal contracts since he took office. Some cases require specific expertise due to the subject matter, such as lawsuits involving tribal issues.
Though Pruitt frequently talks about the need to limit government growth, he hasn’t always applied that idea to his own agency when it comes to spending.
When he became attorney general, he shut down an environmental unit established by former Attorney General Drew Edmondson and shifted staff to a newly created federalism unit, which has five attorneys.
Total spending by the AG’s office increased about 75 percent between fiscal years 2009 and 2015, when his office spent $48.6 million.
The budget increase stands in stark contrast to cutbacks in other agencies in Oklahoma. Teachers haven’t had a raise in five years and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol is cutting back troopers’ daily mileage to 150 miles.
Perhaps in response to criticism of his agency’s spending, Pruitt has since taken steps to reverse the budget trend, even declining to seek any state appropriations this fiscal year. The office also generates over half of its revenues from non-appropriated funds including grants, fines and fees.
A legal assault
Though he frequently rails against federal government overreach, Pruitt isn’t afraid to flex the muscle of state government, radically transforming the attorney general’s role during his six years in office.
While prior attorneys general focused on protecting consumers, Pruitt eschewed that role.
An analysis of Pruitt’s press releases and court records by The Frontier shows he issued dozens of warnings and announcements about possible scams since 2010, and took some kind of action on behalf of consumers in less than a dozen cases.
To carry out Pruitt’s conservative, states-rights agenda, his federalism unit launched a legal offensive against the federal government and other states.
Pruitt joined a lawsuit over the size of California chicken coops and supported suits over the size of church signs in Arizona and establishment of abortion clinic buffer zones in Massachusetts, issues which don’t currently exist in Oklahoma.
His unsuccessful lawsuit against Colorado over its pot legalization drew protests outside his office. Critics said it was hypocritical of him to use the federal courts to intrude on a state’s decision.
Pruitt claimed the lawsuit was necessary to stop what he said was a flow of legal marijuana over the border.
Lori Sheltman, who worked for two years under Pruitt as a legal secretary, said she believed the suits he was fond of filing were more about raising Pruitt’s national profile.
“I didn’t feel like he was protecting anybody out there. He was more showboating for himself or doing things that looked good on paper,” she said.
Edmondson agreed that Pruitt has taken a different path than he did during 16 years in office.
“I don’t recall ever suing the federal government,” Edmondson said.
However the former attorney general, now in private practice, stopped short of criticizing Pruitt’s decision to do so.
“If you believe that the federal government is acting contrary to law and that the state of Oklahoma was being adversely impacted, you would have an obligation to take legal action to try to stop that from happening.”
Pruitt has also used his office to pursue goals that are supported by lobbying organizations rather than initiated by consumer complaints. Edmondson represented the Humane Society of the United States in a lawsuit it filed against Pruitt, who had demanded documents from the organization.
Edmondson said the Humane Society complied with nearly all of Pruitt’s requests but was allowed by law to withhold some documents like meeting minutes.
“Typically that is based on complaints that they receive from consumers. In this case, they acknowledged that they had received no such complaints from any consumer or contributor in the state of Oklahoma. The complaints were coming from people like the Farm Bureau.”
Pruitt often refers to the importance of abiding by the rule of law and has said his suits against the government are motivated by that belief.
However, an investigation by The Frontier found his office failed to follow a state law requiring him to disclose spending on outside attorneys.
The AG’s office also asked a prison warden to sign an inaccurate affidavit about lethal drugs, according to the warden’s federal testimony. Pruitt also provided inaccurate information to the Supreme Court in a death penalty case filing, BuzzFeed has reported.
Lincoln Ferguson, a spokesman for Pruitt, said the attorney general strongly denies violating the disclosure law.
The affidavit the warden was asked to sign was a draft and providing inaccurate information to the Supreme Court was an accident, Pruitt’s office has said.
Pruitt demands transparency and accountability from the federal government — suing the EPA over records he had requested — while his office resisted state audits.
Though agency audits are supposed to occur every two years, the attorney general’s office just went through its first state audit since 2009. State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones notified Pruitt in November that an audit would be conducted.
First Assistant Attorney General Mike Hunter responded, saying there was no need for a state audit.
“The Office of Attorney General has begun the RFP process for securing the services of an
independent auditor, who will be required to follow Government Auditing Standards. … Obviously we will submit the results of that audit to your office,” the letter states.
Jones, a Republican, rebuffed that answer, replying that state law required his office to audit all state agencies.
Pruitt had bristled at what he viewed as Jones’ criticism in an Oklahoman article about the AG’s Tulsa office expansion.
At a time when the state budget faced a massive deficit, Pruitt tripled the size of his Tulsa office by moving to the Bank of America Tower downtown, which also houses the elite private Summit Club on the top three floors.
His spending on personnel had also grown more than 30 percent since FY 2009, as the office added more than 50 employees to its payroll.
Hunter told The Oklahoman the Tulsa office expansion was necessary to house new employees, including staff of the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement. That office was created after Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill to abolish the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission, which investigated complaints of gender, age and race discrimination.
However, records show Pruitt’s office has only filed three discrimination charges since the $500,000 budget of the Human Rights Commission was folded into his agency in FY 2013.
Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Pruitt brought the same kind of dogged determination to the baseball and football field that he now brings to his battles with the federal government.
A three-year letterman in baseball and football in high school, his prowess on the field paid off in a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Kentucky.
A Wildcats baseball roster described the freshman second-baseman as a determined athlete: “Always giving 100 percent, Pruitt is the scrappy-type player that Kentucky is looking for.”
Pruitt didn’t return to Kentucky after his freshman year and graduated from Georgetown College, a Christian college outside of Lexington.
He moved to Oklahoma to attend the University of Tulsa law school, obtaining his law degree in 1993.
Pruitt and his wife, Marilyn, live in a 5,500-square-foot home near 28th and Utica valued at $1.1 million. His son, Cade, is a senior at Cascia Hall and his daughter, McKenna, is a student at the University of Oklahoma.
Faith plays a large role in Pruitt’s personal and professional lives. He’s a deacon in the First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow and serves on the board of trustees for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a religious college based in Louisville.
Pruitt told the EPA’s ethics officer in a letter that if confirmed, he would resign from the boards of the seminary and a religious ministry in Oklahoma City.
As attorney general, he has taken cases involving conflicts between the religious and secular worlds. He defended the state of Oklahoma’s losing battle to keep a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds.
He also filed a brief supporting Hobby Lobby’s challenge of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide insurance coverage for contraception.
Pruitt also displayed his faith in state government meetings.
Sheltman, who now lives in New Mexico, said some employees were shocked when Pruitt began to pray before staff meetings.
“He did say prayers before meetings. … When you work for a state agency it’s something that you are not used to.”
Sheltman was the coordinator for the AG’s “20i program,” gathering reports from other state agencies on their contracts and spending on outside attorneys. A longstanding state law requires the AG to compile the report each year.
While Edmondson reported his outside legal spending, Pruitt hasn’t done so since FY 2011, when he was in office half the year.
Sheltman said she was in charge of preparing the 20i reports and that she included the AG’s spending information, as she had done under Edmondson. She said Pruitt’s assistant told her that information on the agency’s contracts and total spending would be removed from the report.
“He just didn’t want anybody to know what he was paying outside counsel because he was making such a big deal about what other agencies were spending on that. He was paying more out than some of the agencies he was talking about,” she said.
Ferguson said the attorney general “is in no way violating the law.”
“The 20i process is the process by which the Attorney General’s Office reviews and approves other agencies’ hiring of outside counsel. … The floated interpretation would have the office receiving and approving its own contracts, of which it already has complete knowledge.”
Pruitt’s focus on curtailing spending in this area has saved the state millions, Ferguson said.
“At the beginning of AG Pruitt’s administration state agencies spent almost $11.78 M in FY 2011 on outside legal counsel. AG Pruitt has made it a priority for the attorneys in the AG’s office to handle most litigation to lower these costs and increase accountability. By FY 2015, through these efforts, outside counsel usage was lowered to $6.8 M in FY 2015.”
During Pruitt’s confirmation hearing Wednesday. Democrats on the Senate panel are expected to focus extensively on what they view as conflicts of interest.
In a letter to the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, nine Democrats on the Senate panel urge the office to seek additional information.
They write that Pruitt failed to disclose his role as two-time chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which received nearly $4 million from donors associated with the energy industry.
“During his tenure as Attorney General of Oklahoma, Mr. Pruitt has blurred the distinction between official and political actions, often at the behest of corporations he will regulate if confirmed to lead EPA,” the senators’ letter states.
Some of Pruitt’s potential conflicts of interest have been well documented.
A story in Saturday’s New York Times detailed Pruitt’s involvement in a federal lawsuit over poultry waste that the state had already tried. Instead of pushing the judge for a ruling in the case — which sought to limit poultry waste contamination of the Illinois River basin — Pruitt settled the suit with an agreement for a study.
Records show Pruitt received more than $20,000 during his 2010 campaign from poultry industry executives, whose companies stood to benefit from the lawsuit being settled.
Pruitt told The Oklahoman in 2015 why he didn’t push for a ruling: “Regulation through litigation is wrong in my view. … It was a case we inherited.”
Biography facts about Attorney General Scott Pruitt
Name: E. Scott Pruitt
Birthplace: Danville, Kentucky. Raised in Lexington, Kentucky
Education: Attended University of Kentucky on a baseball scholarship. Bachelor’s degree in political science and communications from Georgetown College in Kentucky (1990) and law degree from the University of Tulsa (1993).
Family: Wife Marilyn, son Cade, daughter McKenna
Home: Pruitt owns a 5,500-square-foot home near 28th and Utica valued at $1.1 million. He has a 2012 mortgage of between $500,000 and $1 million.
Finances: According to his federal disclosure forms. Pruitt is paid $265,650 as attorney general, has investment funds worth between $335,000 and $800,000 and a retirement fund between $100,000 and $250,000. He listed no employment income or assets for his wife.
- Co-owner and managing general partner of the Oklahoma City Redhawks, Oklahoma City’s Triple-A baseball team 2003-2010
- Worked for a Tulsa law firm 1993-1998
- Served in Oklahoma state Senate 1998-2006
- Ran unsuccessfully for Congress (2001) and lieutenant governor (2006)
- Elected Attorney general 2010, ran unopposed 2014
- Elected chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association in 2012, re-elected 2013.
- Chairman, board member of the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a “dark money” group that supports RAGA activities. Resigned in December.
- Board of trustees, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.
- Board member, Windows Ministry, Oklahoma City
- Member and deacon in First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow