An Oklahoma judge Thursday ordered state Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, to turn over documents related to Pruitt's communications with coal, oil and natural gas corporations that an advocacy group has sought for more than two years.
District Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons said "there really is no reasonable explanation" why Pruitt's office has not complied with a request filed in January 2015 by the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy for communications between Pruitt and Koch Industries and other major energy companies as well as the corporate-funded Republican Attorney General's Association.
Assistant Attorney General Jeb E. Joseph told the judge that Pruitt's office complied with the group's January 2015 request last week when it turned over about 400 documents. But Timmons said the attorney general's office had previously identified more than 3,000 emails that were relevant to the group's request.
"You just can't sit on them for two years," Timmons said. "The burden is turn it over. The public policy is for openness. You can't just say: 'We're not giving them to you.'"
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Timmons said she was not impressed by claims that the attorney general's office had been overwhelmed with Open Records Act requests from watchdog groups and the U.S. Senate since Trump nominated Pruitt to head the EPA.
"They were well in advance of any confirmation hearings," Timmons said.
The Senate is scheduled to vote Friday afternoon on whether to confirm Pruitt's nomination. Pruitt faced questions at his confirmation hearing about his private meetings with major energy companies while chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association and fundraising for the Rule of Law Defense Fund.
Timmons ordered Pruitt to turn over the records by Tuesday and to comply within 10 days with other open-records requests from the group in 2015 and 2016. Timmons said any documents the attorney general believes are not relevant or are confidential should be surrendered to her for inspection.
A spokesman for the office, Lincoln Ferguson, said in an email statement that the agency "is committed to following the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act."
"In light of that, we are reviewing all of our options in order to ensure fairness to all requestors rather than elevating the importance of some requests over others," Ferguson said. He did not say whether the agency plans to appeal the judge's order or comply with it.
Attorney Bob Nelon, who represents the advocacy group, said following the hearing it is ironic that the very office responsible for enforcing the Oklahoma Open Records Act "couldn't explain why they had not violated the act."
"The fact remains they were non-responsive and the judge found as a matter of law that that was an abject failure to abide by the Open Records Act," Nelon said.
Among other things, the January 2015 request sought information about Pruitt's communications, private meetings and relationships with fossil fuel companies as the state's attorney general, companies he would help regulate as EPA administrator. Nelon said later requests were more narrowly tailored and that the advocacy group has no idea how many documents are involved.
As attorney general, Pruitt has repeatedly sued the EPA and criticized what he has characterized as the EPA's "activist agenda." He has been a reliable booster of the fossil fuel industry and has said his support for legal positions advocated by oil and gas companies was in the best interest of Oklahoma, which is economically dependent on the fossil fuel industry.