Newly Released Emails Reveal Pruitt’s Connections with Koch Brothers

Center for Media and Democracy’s Lisa Graves says Trump’s EPA administrator is continuing to stonewall on releasing thousands of emails

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Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown, in Baltimore.

As a result of an Open Records Act request, and lawsuit filed by the Center for Media and Democracy, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office released a batch of more than 7,500 pages of emails, and other records, withheld prior to Scott Pruitt’s nomination as Environmental Protection Agency administrator last Friday.

Pruitt, who was quickly sworn in to head up the EPA, on the same day as the Senate vote last Friday, had been shown to have had strong ties to the fossil fuel lobby, which include campaign finances. In his role as AG of Oklahoma, he had sued the EPA more than a dozen times, fighting against regulations to protect clean air, and water, from fossil fuel emissions.

With us to discuss what Scott Pruitt’s email communications reveal, is Lisa Graves. Lisa is the Executive Director of the Centre for Media and Democracy. She’s also the publisher of ExposedbyCMD.org and PRWatch.org. CMD is a national watchdog group that conducts in-depth investigations into corruption, and the undue influence of corporations on media and democracy.

Lisa’s is joining us today from Madison, Wisconsin. Lisa, welcome back to The Real News Network, and congratulations on winning the lawsuit.

LISA GRAVES: Thank you so much. We’re really glad to be on your show, and glad to report in on the latest round in this litigation.

KIM BROWN: Absolutely. Well, we’re glad to have you, and let’s just jump right into it, Lisa, because Scott Pruitt had been soundly criticized for being cagey during the EPA administrator confirmation senate hearings.

Let’s take a look at a clip of the Senator from Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse, grilling Scott Pruitt as he testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on his nomination to be administrator of the EPA.

SHELDON WHITEHOU.S.E: You closed your Super PAC, Liberty 2.0, but that took fossil fuel contributions, as well, correct?

SCOTT PRUITT: That particular entity has been closed, yes.

SHELDON WHITEHOU.S.E: Now, you helped to raise money for the Republican Attorneys General Association, while you were a member of its executive committee. They received $530,000 from Koch Industries, $350,000 from Marie Energy, $160,000 from ExxonMobil, and $125,000 from Devon Energy, the company whose letter you transposed onto your letterhead, and sent as an Oklahoma Attorney General document.

Did you solicit, in your role at the Republican Attorneys General Association, any of that funding?

SCOTT PRUITT: I’m unable to confirm if they gave those numbers, Senator, those amounts… there was…

KIM BROWN: It appears that, from the clip, that Pruitt had ties to various Charles and David Koch, the oil billionaire brothers, funded groups.

Have some of these newly released emails confirmed that connection, and if so, what is it?

LISA GRAVES: Well, we know from our investigation of the Republican Attorneys General Association, in documents that we published last fall, that, in fact, those numbers are accurate, the numbers that the Senator Whitehouse talked about, they’re accurate, and they’re just part of the story of how much money was raised by RAGA –- that’s his acronym –- by these Republican Attorneys General. Including, at the time, when Scott Pruitt was on the executive committee of that entity.

That entity is a 527 organization, has another arm, another non-profit arm, as well. But what’s clear is that these corporations were paying substantial sums to get special access to these Attorneys Generals. They knew that that money would then be used to help those Attorneys General candidates when they would run for office, that’s why that group, RAGA has been called a money machine by the New York Times, for these Attorneys General.

And we know that Scott Pruitt was giving presentations at closed-door meetings at fancy resorts, posh resorts, alongside these corporations, these corporate lobbyists, and litigators, as he sought to advance their private interests through his public office.

And so, the question before him in that particular segment, with Senator Whitehouse, was whether he himself had solicited that money, and basically Scott Pruitt dodged that question, dodged answering that question. But that’s not the only question that Scott Pruitt dodged. He dodged an array of questions. And at one point during the confirmation process, when he was asked written questions, he actually told those members of the Senate that they should file an Open Records Request with his office in Oklahoma, to get answers to some of their questions.

Well, that was a pretty audacious claim, in part because we’ve been waiting for more than two years, for the answers to just one of our requests that we filed in January 2015. For records about his relationship with these corporations, and it took a court order, that we got last week, to get some of those records out.

In fact, what we got was the tip of the iceberg. But I think he obfuscated. I think he dodged. I think he is hiding a lot. And I think the Republican senators who pushed him through quite rapidly, were trying to hide from the public, his true record, just as he is.

KIM BROWN: Talk to us about Scott Pruitt’s link to Devon Energy, which is the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series, by the New York Times. Who are… or who is Devon Energy, and what’s Pruitt’s relationship to them? And also, do the emails you obtained, further clarify his relationship to this particular energy company?

LISA GRAVES: This is a company that is basically a global corporation that operates out of Oklahoma. It’s built the largest skyscraper in Oklahoma City, called Devon Tower, and it was created by a father and son, who are some of the biggest investors in the fracking operations in Texas, and other parts of the country, it’s involved in oil and gas operations, and more.

Devon Energy has a close relationship with Scott Pruitt and his office. You can see that in the emails. You can see the communications going back and forth between them. And as Eric Lipton documented in his Pulitzer Prize-winning series a couple of years ago — in fact, Scott Pruitt had no problem — with basically taking a corporate letter and putting his own letterhead, the letterhead of the people of Oklahoma, of the office of the Attorney General of Oklahoma, on top of what their wish list was. And one of the only things he changed was changing numbers -– a numbered bullet list, into an asterisk bullet list.

He is someone who has been willing to, basically, throw the voice of these corporations, advance their personal political interests, their litigation interests, their political and lobbying agenda, basically, through the courts, through his office. And why that’s troubling, is because Scott Pruitt doesn’t need to be the lawyer for Devon Energy. Devon Energy has plenty of its own lawyers. It’s a publicly traded, but private company, it’s not a public office.

And the job of the Attorney General of Oklahoma, is to serve the public interest, including the interests of all the citizens of Oklahoma. And when Senator Merkley questioned Mr. Pruitt about that relationship with Devon, during the confirmation process, Mr. Pruitt had the audacity to say, that getting those views forward from Devon Energy, was what he considered to be representative government.

Well, I’ve got news for him. Corporations don’t vote under our system of democracy, because they’re not people. And they don’t have the same rights as people. And they have plenty of ways to get their voice heard, rather than through the public officers of the state of Oklahoma.

His job was to represent the interests of all the people in Oklahoma, or the majority of the people’s interests, ordinary people’s interests. And as Senator Merkley pointed out, by putting forward that letter, he was simply putting forward the view of just one entity within Oklahoma. Perhaps one of the most powerful corporations in Oklahoma, one of the wealthiest corporations in the country, but that is not the same as doing the public interest.

And so, the concern is that he’ll take those relationships, relationships that are documented in this set of emails, and the more to come, he’ll take those relationships to Washington and continue to do their bidding, as the head of our Environmental Protection Agency. Being paid by our federal tax dollars, to basically serve those private interests. And that’s deeply troubling, given the responsibility that that’s the agency, to protect the water, and air, and climate, for all of us.

KIM BROWN: What were some of the other key takeaways from the newly accessible emails, in terms of his other connections to the fossil fuel lobby?

LISA GRAVES: Well, one of the things we saw in the emails was the love fest between the Koch operatives, and Scott Pruitt and his office. There’s basically a letter from one of the leaders of one of the big Koch entities, called, Americans for Prosperity. I sometimes call them Americans for Greed. But greed doesn’t sell as well as prosperity, so it’s AFP. Their guy was basically praising Pruitt as being on the side of liberty and freedom, and attacking the EPA’s role in regulating these corporations –- which are polluters.

They’re some of the biggest polluters in the country, when you look at the effect of their operations on our water, and our air. And certainly Koch Industries was once subject to the largest indictment in the history of the Justice Department, for environmental crimes. It ultimately settled that case after Bush came in, and after the Kochs made substantial contributions to his election campaign in 2000.

They settled that case for pennies on the dollar. But the fact is, that Koch Industries, and the documented history of a wide array of environmental violations, and so when the Koch Industries had the Koch brothers group, is out there praising Pruitt, for basically doing the work of their vision of liberty, you’ve got to really be concerned that their vision of liberty is not the same as yours. When it comes to actually having clean water, or clean air, that isn’t subject to massive releases of the carcinogen, benzene, and other toxic chemicals.

KIM BROWN: So, Pruitt as a legal expert, has been said to be the key architect of the lawsuit by individual states, as well as fossil fuel and private utility companies against the Clean Power Plan, one of the cornerstones of Obama’s EPA plan to cut greenhouse emissions. And also a key part of the U.S. submission to the Paris Agreement.

Is there any content in the emails that refers to this lawsuit, Lisa?

LISA GRAVES: Well, there are certainly references to the climate change issue, and dealing with the carbon issues, but what we see in these emails, is that they have continued to stonewall on a huge portion of them. This set of emails that they released is only from early 2015, so it pre-dates the Paris Agreement. They were required, basically, by the terms of the law, and by our letter, requesting these emails to bring forth emails up through January of 2016, and they failed to do so.

And so, by definition they’ve omitted the key communications that he may have been having, and that we suspect that he was having, along with his office with these industries, as the Paris Agreement was underway. We also know that they have stonewalled on a number of other parts of this email request, including emails from Mr. Pruitt himself -– they’ve asserted privileges, or other claims against disclosure, on a number of emails, that at least number 1,000. I suspect it will be more than 1,000 pages ultimately, because they’ve only given us the tip of the iceberg.

What we know from other settings, and from our ongoing investigation of RAGA, and Mr. Pruitt in that context, as part of our effort to shine a light on the public interest, what we know is that Mr. Pruitt was part of a closed door session in which he joined with Murray Energy, and other representatives of industry, on a panel on which they claimed that the Clean Power Plan was, quote, “dangerous”.

Dangerous! Which is a pretty extreme, and absurd claim. The Clean Power Plan, as you know, is a very modest set of proposals over a series of years, to reduce carbon emissions in the United States, as part of the international agreement.

It’s by no means dangerous, or an extreme measure. But Mr. Pruitt is part of what we call the “Merchants of Denial.” Who use obstruction and litigation tactics and more, to try to stop efforts, common sense efforts, to address the harms being caused to our climate, for our planet, and our future.

KIM BROWN: Based on the emails, is there a clear conflict of interest for Scott Pruitt heading up the EPA?

LISA GRAVES: Personally, I think that he does have a conflict of interest. I don’t think he should’ve been confirmed, based on the gaps in his record, and what we know about his record. He’s someone who has sought to take away the agency’s power at every turn, and it appears he’s sought to do so on behalf of very special interests.

Now, what that means, in terms of the technical legal requirements for conflicts under the federal law for the ethics rules, those are more narrowly drawn. Those relate to whether you have a personal investment. For example, in a particular industry where you yourself personally are going to benefit from, your decisions at the head of an agency, for example, whether that will benefit your own person portfolio.

But we’ve seen that that’s actually not in some ways Scott Pruitt’s motivation. His effort is to basically advance the corporate interests, whether it benefits his own personal portfolio, or not. So, I think if you take a look at the narrow legal rules, he may not have a legal conflict interest.

However, we don’t know. And we don’t know enough about those relationships to be able to say definitively. But I think what I do know, is that if you take a look from the standpoint of the smell test, or common sense, what an ordinary person would think of as a conflict, you have a person who’s basically spent his public life advancing the interests of private corporations.

And I think that poses a substantial conflict to leading an organization, to leading the EPA, which is by definition, charged with advancing the public interest. Not the private interest, not the interests of special corporations that he’s friends with, or who he hangs out with at posh resorts, through groups like RAGA.

KIM BROWN: Can the content of these emails be used as leverage against him, continuing in his role as EPA administrator, either legally, or even politically?

LISA GRAVES: Well, I think the unfortunate reality of this race to confirm these nominees, no matter how unqualified, or no matter how troubling their records are, means is that once people are confirmed to a position within the Cabinet, they can only be removed by impeachment, or if they resign. So, I think that Scott Pruitt, and his team, seemed inclined to continue to stonewall, in their efforts to slow walk, releasing the emails responded for our request.

So, that’s a problem obviously, that we’re going to continue to have as litigation, to try to get the truth out, so that the whole truth can come out, so that people can see what he was doing in that role. I think the power and importance of these emails, the emails — a full set, beyond this tip of the iceberg — is that the American people will be able to see more fully his actions that he takes, as the head of the EPA. And how they comport with his efforts to work with those corporations to advance their interests, or advance their wish list.

And so, having those emails will help shine a light on whether he’s advancing — what I would consider to be a corrupt agenda — to advance the interests, the narrow interests, of these corporations. Versus to fully enforce the letter and spirit of the law, of our environmental protections, under the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act, and to address the climate changes that are underway.

So, I’m not sure I would call that a political issue, versus a policy issue. I do think politically, the American people are deeply concerned about corruption, the broad definition of corruption –- about special interests having too much say, too much power, too much influence over our laws, and our lawmakers, and our policy-makers.

And I think what these emails will show, is how much that relationship existed in the past several years. And I think it will shed light on the swamp that I think Trump is bringing into full glory, I suppose, or full power, within Washington, through many of these appointments.

KIM BROWN: I understand that there are more emails to come on February the 27th. What do we expect to be in this latest dump? I mean, you got 7,500 pages worth of emails the first go-round. What are you expecting to happen on February the 27th, in terms of volume and content, Lisa?

LISA GRAVES: Well, I imagine that… I hope that we’ll see many, many thousands more emails. Because quite frankly, this slice that they gave us, was only for a couple of month period. It wasn’t for the past two years, which is the time period that this first request covers, or even the most recent period of the last six months.

And so, I think that there are many thousands more emails out there that Scott Pruitt and his team have tried to hide from the public, that they don’t want to see the light of day. And we’re hoping that through the court order, through the court’s vindication of Oklahoma Sunshine laws that the public will get to see those documents. Because those are public records, whether they’re created in his own personal email account, or a staff personal email account, or in their public accounts.

If they’re records going into the business of the state of Oklahoma, regarding these environmental, then that’s the public’s business, and the public… the American people have a right to know.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. And we’re going to keep following this story as it develops. Lisa, we hope to have you back on to talk about the next trove of emails to be released, coming from now former, Attorney General of Oklahoma Scott Pruitt. We appreciate having you on, Lisa.

LISA GRAVES: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be on.

KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Lisa Graves. She’s the executive director for the Center for Media and Democracy. She’s also the publisher of Exposed by CMD.org, and PRWatch.org. The Center for Media and Democracy recently won a court victory, forcing now the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, or at least his former office when he was Attorney General, to turn over several thousand pages of his emails, which do reveal a kind of cozy relationship between him and the fossil fuel industry.

And you’ve been watching The Real News Network.

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