President Donald Trump’s nominee for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency appears to have made a false statement under oath in his Senate confirmation hearing about his actions in a pending industrial waste case filed by the State of Oklahoma, a Fusion review of public records has found.
The question about the veracity of a statement Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt made comes after he was cleared by a Senate committee, but before a pending confirmation vote by the full Senate.
When being questioned by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker about cases that he oversaw as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, Pruitt defended his actions on a case that his predecessor brought against several poultry companies in Arkansas. Oklahoma alleged that the companies had been dumping thousands of tons of waste into the Illinois River, which flows into the state of Oklahoma.
The case received a full federal trial before Pruitt came into office in January 2011. Yet nearly seven years after the trial finished, federal judge Gregory Frizzell has yet to issue a ruling.
Responding to Sen. Booker’s question on that case and on his record on fighting polluters, Attorney General Pruitt said of that case, emphasis mine:
I had every authority to dismiss that case when I came into office. I did not. That case is still pending today, awaiting a federal judge’s decision. I have taken no action to undermine that case. I have done nothing but file briefs in support of the court making a decision. So that is a point of clarity on the litigation.
However, a review of the federal court records shows not a single brief or motion of the sort he described has been filed in the case. Nearly all the court filings in the six year period since he took office have been from attorneys who were withdrawing their representation in the case.
“There’s no evidence that [Pruitt’s] office did anything at all to ask the judge to issue an order in the case, and any claim that he did is not backed up by what we see in the public docket,” Dan Estrin, general counsel at Waterkeeper, a water-advocacy nonprofit group, told me. “It’s beyond bizarre for a judge to take so long to issue an opinion, and even more bizarre for there to be no communication about that fact from the plaintiffs.”
The “plaintiffs” in the case are the state of Oklahoma and therefore the office of its Attorney General Pruitt.
“The burden on these cases is always with the plaintiff,” Estrin underscored.
Interestingly, when Pruitt was running for Attorney General in 2010, he received over $40,000 in campaign donations from defendants and their lawyers in the case, according to an investigation by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy non-profit.
In the Senate hearing, Sen. Booker grilled Pruitt for filing 14 lawsuits against the EPA–often alongside industry groups–during his tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General, accusing him of often “being on the side of the polluters” rather than with the public.
“As I see you ascending potentially to this very important position, sir, I just worry about whose side you are going to be on, given the fact pattern,” said Sen. Booker.
In a statement, Pruitt’s spokesperson John Konkus denied that the statement was false, saying: “Mr. Pruitt was referencing a notice filed in which the Attorney generals office sent a Supreme Court decision to the judge which supports Oklahoma’s arguments made in the case.”
That 2011 notice was the single filing of any substance that was issued on behalf of the state of Oklahoma in the poultry waste case since Pruitt took office as Attorney General. In it, attorneys notified the court that a Supreme Court case that covered similar legal issues had just been decided, but that it would ultimately not affect the case.
That filing did not ask the judge to issue a decision in the case, and neither Pruitt nor anyone in his office was listed as one of the people who submitted it. Rather, it was submitted by private attorneys working on behalf of the state. Pruitt’s office merely received a copy, the filing shows.
“I am shocked to hear that he would say [he filed any briefs] under oath because it is patently false,” Ed Broderick, head of Save the Illinois River, an advocacy group that has followed the case since it was filed in 2005, told me. “Pruitt would have to be able to prove that he filed something with the court, but he can’t because he didn’t.”
“I am shocked to hear that he would say that under oath because it is patently false”- Ed Broderick, head of Save the Illinois River
Broderick’s group has for years asked the Attorney General’s office to push for a judgment in the case, but the office never responded or did anything at all, he said.
“Not a single thing to my knowledge has happened with that case since [former Oklahoma Attorney General] Drew Edmondson left office,” said Broderick. In the meantime, since no injunction or decision has been issued, the status quo remains.
Judge Frizzell’s office told me that the judge does not wish to comment on “pending matters,” no matter if the case was tried seven years ago and has not yet been ruled on.
Last week, Senate Republicans suspended the Environmental and Public Works Committee’s rules in order to approve Pruitt for EPA administrator, despite a Democratic boycott of the vote. The 11-0 vote in the committee clears Pruitt to head to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. The date of that full vote has not yet been scheduled.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect a response from Attorney General Pruitt’s office