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  February 17, 2017

Court Rules Newly Confirmed EPA Head Must Release Thousands of Emails

Republicans pushed to confirm Scott Pruitt before his communications with fossil fuel companies could be made public, says Nick Surgey of the Center for Media & Democracy
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Nick Surgey is Senior Fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy. He work has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian.

His research has also been cited in Mother Jones magazine, The Nation magazine, on MSNBC, and many other places including the Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Nick was previously Staff Counsel at Common Cause, where he led the research and legal work on their ALEC and Supreme Court Ethics projects.His passion for working towards social justice has found him previously working with the UK non-profit Refugee Council, at an immigration and asylum law firm, as a union officer, and as an activist/campaigner.


KIM BROWN: Welcome to the Real News Network in Baltimore. I'm Kim Brown.

Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt was confirmed and sworn in as the Fourteenth Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, according to the EPA's press office.

The EPA runs on an annual budget of about $8 billion with 15,000 employees. As the key U.S. agency dealing with climate change, this may be the most consequential of all of Donald Trump's cabinet appointments as the world enters a period of uncharted global warming. The U.S. Senate voted 54 to 46 to advance Scott Pruitt's nomination to head up the EPA on Friday after a 30-hour debate. Two democrats and one republican broke ranks but otherwise the vote was split along party lines with a Republican majority supporting the nomination.

Now Pruitt has sued the EPA more than a dozen times in his role as former Attorney General of Oklahoma, against environmental regulations. Democrats tried to block the vote stating that senate members did not have all of the information to make an informed decision due to the nominee blocking access to his communications with the fossil fuel lobby, in what could be construed as a conflict of interest.

Here is Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley along with other democratic senators, including Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, calling for a delay in the senate's vote on Scott Pruitt's nomination to be the EPA administrator.

JEFF MERKLEY: For two years now the Attorney General of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, has stonewalled attempts to make public, the record of over 3000 e-mail communications with members of the fossil fuel industry. Two years ago, the Center for Media and Democracy requested those e-mails through the Oklahoma Open Records Act. And the person who decides to release those records, the Attorney of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, our nominee for the EPA. When Democrats on the Environmental and Works Committee requested those records from Mr. Pruitt, during his confirmation process, his answer was, and I quote, “I would direct you to make a request of the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.” There is something particularly strange about the nominee who controls the records, saying, “Ask me in my official capacity as AG.” Knowing that he has not responded to those requests, year after year.

KIM BROWN: Also on Friday the Oklahoma County Court found Scott Pruitt in violation of the State's Open Records Act as Senator Merkley mentioned, the Centre for Media and Democracy filed a lawsuit against Pruitt for improperly withholding public records. And the court ordered his office to release thousands of e-mails in a matter of days.

And with us to discuss this victory for transparency and open democracy, we're joined by Nick Surgey, who is the Centre for Media and Democracy's, Director of Research, and an investigative reporter. His work has been featured in The Guardian, New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and in The Washington Post and many other places, including The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Nick was previously Staff Council at Common Cause, where he led the research in legal work on their ALEC and Supreme Court Ethics Projects.

Nick, welcome back to The Real News. It's been a long time since we've had you on.

NICK SURGEY: Thanks, Kim.

KIM BROWN: So, Nick, basically congratulations on the legal victory. So is this bittersweet for you in that Scott Pruitt is still going to be confirmed. By the time this interview airs he will be sworn in as head of the EPA?

NICK SURGEY: Yeah, it is somewhat. Pruitt's set to be sworn in this afternoon. You know, we had this victory in our court case and we will get to see Scott Pruitt's e-mail communications, adding any appeals that they may try and bring. But today was also a big win for the fossil fuel industry. It's really a bad guy going to be heading up the Environmental Protection Agency. I think if you have asked the collective oil, coal and gas industries who they would want to have at the Environmental Protection Agency, somebody who would have their back, they might want to pick Scott Pruitt. He probably would have been on their list. He's been a leading opponent of the Environmental Protection Agency, leading opponent of rules that the EPA has brought, in order to try and protect the environment over the last several years. And now he finds himself heading up that agency and that's very troubling.

KIM BROWN: So, talk about why your organization filed the lawsuit and why it's important that we see the contents of thousands of e-mails with energy companies and the fossil fuel lobby and Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt.

NICK SURGEY: Sure. I mean, we've been trying to get records from Scott Pruitt's office now for more than two years. We filed our first Public Records request which were seeking e-mails between Scott Pruitt and a couple of his senior staffers, his chief of staff and a list of coal, oil and gas companies and some organizations that they fund. We have been told that they found thousands, more than three thousand e-mails between Pruitt's office and these companies. And they have been dragging their feet really to not release them. They released a partial set of 411 but that's a lot less than more than three thousand. In fact, it means that they held back about 85% of the e-mails that they'd identified and it seems that they held back some pretty embarrassing e-mails. And the reason that we know that is because two and a half years ago, they had released some records to The New York Times... somewhat different request that they made, but there's some overlap in what we were asking for. And there are e-mails that The New York Times got that ended up in a series of stories that won the Pulitzer Prize for The New York Times, that was looking at Scott Pruitt's relationship, in particular with Devon Energy, a big fracking company, based in Oklahoma. And they showed Scott Pruitt, willingly putting his name to letters that were drafted by Devon Energy, almost completely with just changing a few words and then submitting them to federal agencies on issues that effects Devon's bottom line. Putting the Attorney General of Oklahoma's letterhead on those letters and willingly being a mouthpiece for companies, as Attorney General and even more so, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, that he's supposed to be regulating. He should have a distance from those companies. And so, we think it's really important that these e-mails are released but just too late in order for it to factor in his confirmation process. And that was obviously intentional on the part of the Republicans. They were really pushing his votes to take place this afternoon. Because we're talking about just Tuesday. Tuesday next week is when we're going to get those e-mails and the Republicans, against the objections of the Democrats were like, "No. We have to take a vote today. We cannot wait 'til weekend. We have to immediately do so." Because, of course, we assume because they're afraid of what these e-mails are going to show.

KIM BROWN: Now Nick, you have done research and legal work on the American Legislative Exchange Council otherwise known as ALEC which is an organization which we know to heavily influence state law and has powerful ties to the fossil fuel billionaires, Charles and David Koch, as outlined in The Real News's documentary, The Koch Brothers War on Climate Science. So, based on your research, how deep are the ties between Scott Pruitt and the fossil fuel interests?

NICK SURGEY: Well, they're very deep. And we know that because of several years ago, this award winning investigation by the New York Times. And we know that because he raises a very large amount of money from those industries. We know that because he regularly attends industry conferences. We know that because he has said that he is going to change the policies in the Environmental Protection Agency, in order to stop the war on fossil fuels. There hasn't been a war on fossil fuels, there's been sensible regulations that puts a check on pollution which effects people's lives. But he has consistently been on the side of these industries and he's attended meetings of groups like ALEC. He's attended meetings and he spoke at one particular breakfast conference at ALEC, at which he was railing on the over-reach of The Environmental Protection Agency. And that breakfast meeting, I think it should come as no surprise, was sponsored by a coal company, Peabody Energy.

So, he's consistently been very, very close to industry. He's been close to groups like ALEC and it's now very difficult to imagine that he's going to distance himself from his close friends, the companies that have backed his campaigns, that have put him where he now is, when he's head of The Environmental Protection Agency.

KIM BROWN: So, what's next after the e-mails are made public? I mean, if a clear conflict of interest can be made of Scott Pruitt's heading up the EPA, couldn't there be legal repercussions?

NICK SURGEY: Well, you know, a case may be made that he has to recuse himself from certain positions. I mean that's possible. It's hard to know until we get these e-mails. Of course, the problem is that who's going to force him to recuse himself? That's the problem. But it would be up to the EPA to determine when he should recuse himself. There's a designated agency ethics office and there are certain agreements that have been made already about scenarios when Pruitt might have to recuse. But the problem is that we haven't got the full facts. There were questions that were asked throughout his confirmation process by democrats on the Environment Public Works Committee that were not answered. There were questions that were asked about his ties to Koch industries. To groups like ALEC, to big fracking companies like Devon Energy. And Pruitt didn't want to answer those questions. And, in fact, the democrats objected, they said, "We cannot take a vote on Scott Pruitt," this was at the committee stage, "We can't take a vote as to whether he should move forward for a full vote of the senate until he's answered these questions. And the republicans suspended the rules so that they could push him through without him having answered any of these questions. And then the republicans, today, pushed through the objections of democrats, mostly, Susan Collins and one Republican who voted against Pruitt to push his vote through when there were a lot of calls for not a significant delay, a slight pause so that these e-mails could come out and they could adequately vet his record.

KIM BROWN: So, we should mention, that there has been an unprecedented show of resistance on the part of the EPA scientists, environmental lawyers and policy experts in both public demonstrations and in calling their senators across the country to block Scott Pruitt's nomination. So, if normally quiet bureaucrats and scientists are risking their jobs to speak out, it seems that we should all be paying attention. So how far could Pruitt go to undo Environmental Protection?

NICK SURGEY: Well, he could do a lot. You know, there's some executive orders that have been rumored to be coming from the Trump administration. But, Pruitt is going to be setting the direction of the organization of the agency. And it's not just repeal of regulations. He could slow walk them. He could have a significant influence over enforcement. There are enforcement officers of the EPA that distribute it all around the country. And what direction are they going to get from the agency about enforcement? And if they're not going in and checking on these crimes, either reports from whistleblowers or from individuals or their regular routine investigations, if that's not taking place then there will not be prosecutions brought forward. And if that's the case then industry will have an excuse to not abide by the regulations. So there's possibility of regulations that will get repealed by congress. There are executive orders that could be issued by the president. And there could be a slow-walking of enforcement and direction that is set by Pruitt, as head of the agency that could really stall all of the advances that have been taking place over decades.

You know, this used to be bipartisan. The EPA was set up by Nixon, it was set up under Republican, it was renewed under a republican congress and this didn't used to be a purely partisan issue and democrats were in favor of environmental protections, republicans were opposed to them. And we really have to return to that if we're going to tackle these big problems that we really have to face now. There's been too many years of inaction on big problems like climate change. And I don't think that we're going to get to see a solution when we have somebody like Scott Pruitt, who's a climate change denier, and a consistent thorn against the EPA, running that agency,

KIM BROWN: Indeed. We've been speaking with Nick Surgey. He is from the Centre for Media and democracy. He's the Director of Research, also an investigative reporter. The Centre for Media and Democracy scored a court victory in Oklahoma, getting a judge to agree to have Scott Pruitt’s, thousands of his e-mails while he served as Attorney General of that state, to be disclosed. However, that won't happen until next week. And on Friday, today, Scott Pruitt was confirmed by the Senate, to be the Head administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

So, Nick, congratulations. I'm sorry this is a bittersweet victory for you but we definitely appreciate the work that you and your center do. So best of luck and good luck.

NICK SURGEY: Thanks, Kim. It's good to be on here.

KIM BROWN: Thanks. And thank you guys for watching The Real News Network.




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