Democrats Question Pruitt’s Ties to Energy Industry

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By Brian Dabbs

The likely nominee for Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has regularly repackaged fossil fuel industry positions into state policy, Senate Democrats alleged in a Dec. 27 letter.

Those lawmakers, who include some of the staunchest EPA supporters in the chamber, urged Pruitt to disclose his full relationship with the energy industry prior to Senate hearings on his nomination. All the signatories sit on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which will host Pruitt’s hearings.

“We have been troubled that as Attorney General of Oklahoma you used, nearly verbatim, industry talking points in official correspondence your office sent to EPA concerning EPA’s estimation of methane pollution in your state,” the lawmakers said. “What that conduct says about your ability to lead EPA in a manner that is not beholden to special or secret interests is a subject that we expect will receive a full airing during your confirmation hearing.”

Repackaged Industry Positions

At least some of those talking points came from lobbyists tied to Devon Energy, an onshore oil and gas producer based in Oklahoma City, said Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

The New York Times unearthed in 2014 Devon correspondence with Pruitt that led to an Oklahoma challenge to the methane pollution estimate. Oklahoma policy officials and lawmakers, however, dismissed those allegations as political gamesmanship.

“It’s not uncommon for us, as state officials, to rely on the complete body of evidence and information as we present our policies going forward, and it’s not uncommon to rely on the regulated community as part of that equation,” J.D. Strong, director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and a former water quality official, told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “The letter seems to insinuate he’s a puppet for the industry, but I certainly have never seen that play out in any of his policies or work.”

Rule of Law Defense Fund

The letter also highlights Pruitt’s relationship with the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a private group that has challenged a range of federal regulations, including the Clean Power Plan. Internal Revenue Service filings show that Pruitt is a director of the organization, as is Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and other state attorneys general.

The letter said Freedom Partners, a conservative advocacy group, has contributed $175,000 to the fund during the past three years. Democratic staffers for the letter signatories didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA requests for comment on the suggestions of impropriety related to the fund.

“The confirmation process, starting with your responses to Committee questions before your hearing, is an opportunity for you to dispel the notion that the advocacy you have undertaken on environmental issues as Attorney General of Oklahoma has been directed by and for the benefit of the energy industry,” the letter said.

The senators asked for a list of fund donors, funding requests and expenditures, among other organizational details.

Fund Counsel Hits Back

Counsel to the fund, Clark Hill PLC’s Charles Spies and James Tyrrell, however, urged Pruitt to dismiss the disclosure request, alleging it has no “legal significance.”

“The Internal Revenue Code and the Treasury Department’s regulations make clear that tax-exempt organizations like [the Rule of Law Defense Fund] are not required to share their donors’ names, addresses, or other identifying information with the public,” said Spies and Tyrrell, also pointing to corroborating legal decisions. “In accordance with these laws and precedent, it is [the fund’s] longstanding policy to maintain donor confidentiality and not disclose the identity of its donors to the public, even to former members of [the fund’s] Board like you.”

Meanwhile, outgoing Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a staunch supporter of Pruitt, said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA that the disclosure request was a fishing expedition.

“This letter extends beyond the usual questioning of an EPA nominee’s record, and it seems these questions might best be directed to the Republican Attorneys General Association,” said Inhofe. “While I disagreed with most of the nominees under President Obama, I aired my concerns consistent with committee practice, and I suggest my Democratic colleagues do the same instead of this fishing expedition. This is a baseless political stunt that AG Pruitt has no responsibility to entertain.”

Ashley Kemp, executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, told Bloomberg BNA there is currently no pending or completed litigation and no settlement agreements involving Pruitt and either Devon Energy or the Rule of Law Defense Fund.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington, D.C., at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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