A story published last Friday in the Oklahoman sheds light to something that I had been looking into for a while. It all started when my team and I were working on the documentary The Naked Truth: Wasteland, which explored Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s history in his home state of Oklahoma. For years he had been the state’s Attorney General, a time during which he sued the EPA 14 times. The agency he now runs.
Like almost nothing before it, the report raises serious questions about Pruitt’s ethics in public office. It also raises questions about Pruitt’s claim that he handled the clean-up of a Superfund site that he submitted to the Senate during his confirmation process.
For those following an obscure controversial episode of Oklahoma politics, it was a bombshell. In 2011, former-Okalahoma U.S. Senator Tom Coburn gave Pruitt’s office a box of documents it obtained about a Superfund site in northeastern Oklahoma, which is known as Tar Creek. The site was a former lead mine. From it, the U.S. made the bullets needed to win World War II. But it left a toxic legacy.
Pruitt turned those documents over to state auditor Gary Jones, also a Republican.
The Coburn documents purported to show rampant corruption involved with the clean-up effort. That effort was headed by a public trust called the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust. The main goal of the Trust was to buy out people’s homes and help them relocate. Then, clean-up efforts could take place. But first, they needed to get the people out of there. It was a public trust, and Pruitt’s office represented it in legal matters.
Three years later, in 2014, Jones’ office gave the resulting audit to Pruitt’s office. We only know this because in 2015—more than a year later— Jones’ office wrote a letter to Pruitt asking for permission to release the audit. Pruitt’s office declined, saying that it contained “unsubstantiated criminal allegations about private citizens.”
Jones shot back that this assessment was bullshit. “To our knowledge, the individuals named in the report are members of a public trust or a contractor whose services were retained as part of this substantive project,” he wrote. Jones also wrote that as far as he and his office was concerned,
Pruitt’s office refused to release the audit.
The Oklahoman obtained a letter from a member of the trust showing that Pruitt’s office provided a copy of that audit to the very people who it targeted. Further, he never made this public.
I had a feeling that something of this sort happened. In a meeting agenda that I obtained, it shows details of a meeting the Trust held three months after Pruitt’s office received the audit alleging criminal wrongdoing. Part of that meeting happened behind closed doors specifically to discuss the audit. Members of Pruitt’s staff were invite to the meeting, but I’ve been unable to confirm with the Attorney General’s Office whether they attended, or in what capacity they might have done so. According to the Oklahoman, two months later, a member of the Trust wrote to Pruitt acknowledging that he had received a copy of the audit and saying that he shared it with other members of the Trust.
This is where we should take a step back. The Trust was already embroiled in controversy and several lawsuits. The lawsuits alleged that the Trust was giving inflated buyouts to specific members of the community that were connected to the Trust, that it was lowballing people that were not connected to the Trust, that it regularly met behind closed doors in violation of open meetings laws, and that it gave an inflated contract to a company that was hired to help with the buyouts in a way that helped the personal business of members of the Trust. The funds for the Trust came from taxpayers, placing this scandal squarely in the public interest.
One of the main subjects of these lawsuits was J.D. Strong, the former head of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and current head of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife. At the time, Strong was the state’s Secretary of the Environment. The suits alleged that he inserted himself into the meetings and exercised virtually total control over the contracting and buy-out process. Strong fought these allegations for years, but ended up copping to a plea deal, agreeing to testify truthfully about what really happened with the Trust in exchange for an “immediate dismissal with prejudice” of any actions against him.
Since Pruitt emerged as a potential head of the EPA, Strong has become one of his most vocal supporters. He’s done countless interviews and appearances on Pruitt’s behalf. He was quoted by GOP Senators looking for environmentally-friendly sounding sources speaking positively about Pruitt. When we were looking to interview pro-Pruitt officials in the state for our documentary, Strong was literally the only one who agreed to go on the record with us, after dozens of others declined to do so. (That was before I started to piece together the thread I’m going on about here.)
Several sources close to the Tar Creek case in the state I’ve talked to, including current and former government employees and environmental activists have asked: Why? What is Strong getting out of speaking so highly about Pruitt?
“He came out of this thing smelling like roses, for a thug,” Ed Keheley, a former member of the trust who resigned in protest told me about Strong. Pruitt blocked the release of the audit that could have aired out that dirty laundry, and so “Doesn’t it make sense now that J.D. Strong would be so gung-ho about Pruitt?”
When I contacted him, Strong said the following:
These allegations are absurd. I was happy to testify regarding my involvement because I had nothing to hide. Similarly, I have no reservations about the release of any audits because I have nothing to hide regarding my involvement in the buyout efforts at Tar Creek. My statements regarding Scott Pruitt are based solely upon my experience working with him on a number of complex projects, particularly the water settlement with the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, and have nothing to do with trying to curry favor with him or trying to gain political advantage. Specifically, I have never made comments regarding Mr. Pruitt with a thought towards audits of the Tar Creek buyout effort.
(Keheley resigned from the Trust because he said Strong made doing the work impossible. A woman named Sonya Harris who was an employee for the Trust wrote a letter resigning from it, citing the same issues. Keheley testified under oath that he didn’t help her prepare that letter, but in a conversation with me he said that he did. So there is that. But the fact is that in his plea deal Strong admitted to exercising undue influence over the Trust, and that he had no experience overseeing property appraisals that he was overseeing. Those were at the center of the controversy.)
The papertrail here is wildly long. Those resignations happened over ten years ago, and the failure of the clean-up effort has been a longstanding problem. Things are still in terrible shape in Tar Creek.
But when he was being vetted to become EPA Administrator, Pruitt nonetheless included Tar Creek clean-up in a list he drew up for the Senate reflecting on his environmental accomplishments.
“Part of what makes this whole thing so egregious is that Scott Pruitt is going around out there saying that the Tar Creek project was handled so great,” said Keheley. “He knows what’s in that report and that it wasn’t clean at all. If he thought it was all good and dandy why would he not release the report?”
Bizarrely, in a Politico piece about Tar Creek last year, Pruitt said that he “had no experience with Tar Creek, to be honest with you.” I have tons of emails and records of meetings between his office and the Trust. That statement is flatly untrue. But pretending that Tar Creek was a success—and that he played a role in it, would seem to benefit one of Pruitt’s benefactors: Oklahoma’s own U.S. Senator James Inhofe. The whole Trust and the clean-up effort at Tar Creek was a pet project of his.
The same day that Pruitt sent the letter to the state auditor saying that he would not allow for the release of the audit, the Trust voted to dissolve itself. Four days later, Senator Inhofe sent out a press release celebrating the Trust’s work and legacy. To put it bluntly, Inhofe was invested in the Trust not being a scandal.
The connection between Pruitt and Inhofe—a notorious climate change denier and perennial environmentalists’ nemesis— cannot be understated. Pruitt has stacked the EPA loads of former-Inhofe staffers. Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson was a Inhofe staffer. Ideologically, they have a tremendous amount of crossover.
It is widely believed that Pruitt will pursue higher office. By the time Inhofe is up for reelection in 2020, he will be 85, and he will likely announce his retirement before then. The loudest whisper in the Sooner State is that Pruitt is going to jump at the opportunity, with the much-coveted Inhofe endorsement.
Inhofe’s office has denied that it had anything to do with suppressing the audit. And besides rumors that former Senator Coburn and members of his staff know otherwise, that’s all we have. They’re not talking to the press.
Oklahoma’s current state attorney general Mike Hunter is also refusing to release the full audit, saying that it is part of the “investigative and litigation files of the Attorney General’s Office.” There is an ongoing lawsuit pending on the release of the audit which is now armed by the fact that Pruitt shared the document with the audit’s very targets, and so arguably it’s already been released.
State Auditor Gary Jones, a Republican who is running for Governor, strongly feels that the document should be made public. When I asked his office for a copy, this is their response:
Let me be clear, if it was up to us, we would publicly release the audit and all of its associated work papers. We uphold the public’s right to know how its tax dollars are being spent. We strenuously promote accountability and transparency in both the action of public officials and the expenditure of public funds.
We regret that we are unable to respond to your request as we find the position of the AG to be untenable despite that office being regarded as the state’s chief law enforcer. In the final analysis, we are auditors, not attorneys, and we will – reluctantly – follow this legal position as expressed until such time as that opinion has been overturned by a court of competent jurisdiction.
In the meantime, Pruitt is touting his work on the Superfund program—which encompasses Tar Creek—as one of his biggest accomplishments. But while he claims he’s doing good for Superfund sites now, there’s a staggering question about what he did about the sites in his previous position as Oklahoma Attorney General: Who was he covering for?
Photo: Tim Dowd, Creative Commons