WASHINGTON (CN) – A shroud of secrecy has fallen over the Environmental Protection Agency’s recordkeeping ever since President Donald Trump appointed Administrator Scott Pruitt, two ethics watchdogs claim in a lawsuit filed this week.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed the joint complaint against both administrator and agency on Thursday.
As stewards of those federal records, the National Archives and Records Administration, as well as national archivist David Ferriero, were also named as defendants.
“Since assuming office, [Pruitt] has operated in extensive secrecy and avoided creating an adequate record of his and the EPA’s action,” the 21-page complaint states.
Filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the complaint claims the defendants have failed to maintain various agency records – including those focused on anti-pollution decision-making.
CREW attorney Anne Weismann and PEER attorney Paula Dinerstein call the lack of a paper trail within the agency a violation of the Federal Records Act, which governs the creation and maintenance of national government records.
PEER has filed at least four Freedom of Information Act requests with the agency seeking Pruitt’s agendas, recorded meeting minutes, and lists of attendees at meetings connected to Pruitt’s Superfund Task Force, a panel he commissioned to overhaul the EPA’s superfund program.
The urge to hide information, the groups claim, stems as far back as Pruitt’s confirmation hearing before Congress last year when he failed to disclose to lawmakers his relationships with various fossil fuel industry leaders.
“The full extent of Pruitt’s ties to these groups… was not revealed until four days after his confirmation as EPA administrator, when an Oklahoma state court ordered that more than 7,500 pages of his emails be made public,” the complaint states.
This forcible disclosure, the groups contend, may have convinced Pruitt to quash transparency at the agency from the jump. Reports Pruitt prohibited staff from bringing cell phones into meetings and ordered employees to forgo note-taking in order “to avoid the creation of any record of his questions or directions,” also set off warning bells for the environmental groups, according to the complaint.
Reports that Pruitt purchased a $25,000 secure phone booth to be installed in his office were also worrisome, the groups note.
CREW says that in September, it sent a letter to archivist Ferriero highlighting its concerns and requesting the National Archives make a recommendation to Pruitt about following the Federal Records Act.
After months of back-and-forth between the organizations and the archives, the groups claim they were ignored.
CREW’s last communication with the National Archives was in December, it says.
The National Archives Chief Records Officer Lawrence Brewer allegedly told CREW he spoke with acting EPA administrator Steven Fine and assured the group that its concerns were “discussed with the EPA Chief of Staff” and formal correspondence between the archives and the EPA would soon occur.