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Judge Rules Against Oklahoma AG Pruitt, Orders Trump’s EPA Pick To Release Emails

Center for Media and Democracy attorney Robert Nelon, center, outside a courtroom in Oklahoma City on Feb. 16, 2017.
Joe Wertz
StateImpact Oklahoma
Center for Media and Democracy attorney Robert Nelon, center, outside a courtroom in Oklahoma City on Feb. 16, 2017.

An Oklahoma County District judge on Thursday ordered Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office to turn over emails and other documents requested two years ago by a watchdog group.

In the ruling against Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection agency, judge Aletia Haynes Timmons said the agency violated state transparency laws.

The Center for Media and Democracy in January 2015 requested copies of emails between Pruitt’s attorney general’s office, fossil fuel companies and conservative think-tanks. The attorney general’s office found 3,000 responsive records, but did not release them. The Wisconsin-based nonprofit on Feb. 7 filed a lawsuit, arguing the two-year wait violated a provision in Oklahoma’s Open Records Act that assures the public “prompt and reasonable” access to government records.

Judge Timmons agreed.

“Prompt and reasonable access to those records has not been given and the Open Records Act is being frustrated in policy and purpose,” she said after reciting portions of the transparency law to agency attorneys.

The attorney general’s office can appeal the ruling.

“The burden on a public agency, including someone like the attorney general, is not to withhold and then require the requester to justify why they want the documents,” said Robert Nelon, an attorney for the watchdog group.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the ruling. Pruitt has declined interview requests until the confirmation process is complete. In a court filing responding to the lawsuit, attorneys for the agency said the Center for Media and Democracy had an “apparent political axe to grind”

“… it wants the taxpayers of the State of Oklahoma to bear the cost of that politically motivated quest,” state attorneys wrote. “The court should decline Plaintiff’s invitation to take part in this hijacking and misuse of Oklahoma resources.”

The attorney general’s office released about 400 of the records after the lawsuit was filed. Judge Timmons ordered the agency turn over the remaining records by Feb. 21. Any records the agency thinks it has legal reasons to keep secret are to be turned over to the court for private inspection, Timmons ordered. Timmons also ordered the agency to fulfill by late February eight other records requests made by the group between 2015 and 2016.

Emails and other communications previously released under Oklahoma’s open records law showed Pruitt signing his name to letters largely written by oil and gas companies.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats cited the missing records as a reason for boycotting procedural votes and arguing for a delay in Pruitt’s final confirmation vote — which Republican leaders have slated for Friday.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state. He previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly arts and entertainment correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.
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