ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – In his first year at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt has exhibited an insatiable penchant for secrecy.
In an effort to keep his conversations private, Pruitt went so far as having a $43,000 soundproof booth installed in his office and some of his former staffers have alleged the administrator’s quest for secrecy extended to moratoriums on the use of cell phones during meetings and a ban on note taking at agency meetings.
When pressed by lawmakers at congressional hearings earlier this year, Pruitt denied the allegations. Currently, Pruitt is at the center of inquiries by the Government Accountability Office, the EPA’s Inspector General, the Office of Management and Budget and others.
Now, a group of environmentalists has called on Pruitt to testify under oath on his record-keeping practices.
According to Margaret Townsend, open government attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit headquartered in Arizona, without access to Pruitt’s schedule or communications, it is difficult to trust exactly what goes on behind the scenes at the EPA.
Whether the issue is the EPA’s alleged failure to comply with the Freedom of Information Act or Pruitt’s spending practices, Townsend told Courthouse News, “the public has a right to know” how the administrator runs his agency.
“[We] have a right to know who he is speaking with and meeting with, particularly considering the administration’s proclivity for favoring industry over human health and the environment,” Townsend said. “The EPA has given zero communications authored or sent by Pruitt during this crucial time in the beginning of his term as administrator and those types of communications are specifically what the center seeks.”
The center filed a FOIA request with the EPA in February 2017, two weeks after Pruitt joined the agency. They wanted access to his agenda and emails during his entry phase out of concern he might use his new position to placate special interest groups.
The agency didn’t respond for five months. When it finally did, it unilaterally narrowed the scope of the center’s request and provided only emails sent to the administrator, not any of his responses.
The center responded by suing the agency on May 3.
“Pruitt doesn’t try to hide his contempt for environmental protections,” Townsend said. “However, [in the requested documents] there may be more direct evidence of how he colludes with polluters to undermine the mission of his own agency.”
According to the center’s government affairs director, Brett Hartl, unless Pruitt is “hauled before a judge,” the secrecy will continue.
“[Otherwise,] it’s pretty obvious he’ll just keep lying,” Hartl said. “Even Congress can’t get a straight answer out of him. Putting Pruitt on the witness stand could finally reveal how he’s colluding with polluters to sabotage protections for our air and water.”
On May 24, the center filed a motion to depose Pruitt and requested the court take limited discovery of the agency’s “retention and maintenance” of Pruitt’s communications.
Hartl admitted that it is unusual though not unprecedented for parties to attempt to depose public officials in civil litigation.
In 2015, Murray Energy Corp., one of the nation’s largest coal producers, has sued the EPA arguing the agency didn’t properly consider how its rules would affect employment before issuing them.
The company sought to depose then EPA administrator Gina McCarthy as part of the case, and that request was granted by a federal district court. However, before the deposition could actually happen, the agency appealed the ruling.
Two weeks later, the 4th Circuit stopped the deposition.
The center has also taken deposition of a high level career employee before; but that matter was in regard to a Fish and Wildlife Service policy they challenged in court.
“Depositions are appropriate when an issue in dispute is not part of any administrative record because the judge otherwise will not necessarily have information upon which to make a decision,” Hartl said.
The center isn’t alone in their concerns. Watchdog groups Campaign for Accountability and American Oversight filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Washington, D.C. in April seeking records connected to the Tar Creek Superfund site in Oklahoma.
In 2004, the state launched a buyback program for Tar Creek residents, giving them a chance to move elsewhere as the site expanded. Ten years later, a state auditor revealed the program was beset with corruption, including unfair offers given to homeowners who personally knew members of the Lead Impacted Communications Relocation Trust, the panel leading the buyback program.
According to the filing by American Oversight, Pruitt sat on the report for over a year before announcing he wouldn’t pursue any charges of criminal wrongdoing. He also stopped the auditor’s report from being released.
FOIA requests, Townsend said, are among the strongest legal tools the layman has to hold officials accountable and ensure federal agencies operate transparently.
“Pruitt cannot continue to operate in the shadows,” she said, noting the center would continue to pursue Pruitt’s records as long as it is necessary.
The EPA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.