While he was the Attorney General of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt declined to bring charges in response to an audit that found evidence of criminal wrongdoing. In 2014, the Oklahoma State Auditor found evidence of a criminal scheme at the Tar Creek Superfund site, but when he reported his findings to Pruitt, the current EPA Administrator rejected the findings and declined to prosecute the alleged corruption.
After Pruitt ended the investigation, the State Auditor asked Pruitt’s office for permission to publicly release the audit. Pruitt’s office denied the request. After CfA received an anonymous tip about the audit, we filed open records requests with the State Auditor and the Attorney General seeking access to the documents. Both officials, at the instruction of current Attorney General Michael Hunter, denied our requests. We then filed a lawsuit to force them to release the audit documents, and on April 9, 2018, Attorney General Hunter released the requested documents. CfA has since filed two more lawsuits to uncover why these audit documents were kept secret.
Tar Creek and LICRAT
Tar Creek, Oklahoma was once the world’s largest source of lead and zinc. After decades of environmentally-ruinous mining practices, though, the 40-square mile area in northeast Oklahoma is now so toxic that parts of it have become uninhabitable. In 2006, U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) helped set up a community-led trust, the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Trust (LICRAT), to undertake the buyout and demolition of homes in the area, so citizens affected by the mining could move away from the toxic environment.
LICRAT proved to be a disaster. According to Politico Magazine, the trust proved to be so problematic that it caused more than a half-dozen lawsuits and even led to criminal audit investigation. LICRAT was set up to buy out peoples’ homes at a fair price and then oversee their demolition. Instead, residents described the process as “coercive and corrupt.” Some well-connected homeowners received fat checks for their properties while others received so little they could not relocate to neighboring communities. Contractors hired to demolish properties were reportedly paid higher than typical market value, and the bidding process was unsound.
Today, Tar Creek resembles a hazardous, abandoned landfill, serving as a shadow of the community that once lived there.
Scott Pruitt’s Secrecy
In 2011, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn submitted to Pruitt a detailed list of alleged misconduct at Tar Creek. On April 21, 2011, Pruitt asked Oklahoma State Auditor Gary Jones to investigate LICRAT’s contracting practices.
While conducting the audit, the State Auditor’s office found evidence of criminal wrongdoing at the site. Jones reported his findings to Pruitt, but – without explanation – Pruitt rejected the findings and declined to bring criminal charges.
In 2015, the State Auditor asked Pruitt to release the LICRAT audit. Pruitt denied the request stating, “our office is concerned about publication of unsubstantiated criminal allegations against private citizens.” The auditor’s office disputed Mr. Pruitt’s rationale, stating that they were not aware of “any unsubstantiated claims” and that “the individuals named in the report are members of a public trust or a contractor whose services were retained as part of this substantive project.”
In 2017, E&E News and Politico requested copies of the LICRAT audit, but their requests were denied. In response to one of those requests, the Attorney General’s Office confirmed that it had “declined to take any action…as a result of the audit” and returned the audit to the State Auditor’s possession. The Attorney General, however, stated that audit “shall remain confidential.”
Continue reading about our lawsuits below.
"Scott Pruitt decided not to prosecute alleged corruption and has been trying to hide the reasons for this questionable decision from the public ever since. Oklahoma citizens deserve to know what the government is so intent to hide."
CfA Executive Director, Daniel Stevens
CfA’s Fight to Release the LICRAT Audit
On November 9, 2017, CfA submitted an open records request to the State Auditor’s office seeking the audit documents, after the media outlets failed to obtain them. In response, the State Auditor explained that he wanted to release the records, but he had been instructed not to do so by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter. CfA then filed a request for the records directly with the Attorney General’s office, which denied the request.
In response to the Attorney General’s denial, on November 27, 2017, CfA filed a lawsuit in the District Court of Oklahoma County against Attorney General Hunter and State Auditor Jones.
The State Auditor responded to CfA’s lawsuit by agreeing with CfA that these records ought to be made public. According to Jones, the law clearly states such records fall under Oklahoma Open Records Act and therefore should be released. The State Auditor also revealed in his filing that Pruitt had released part of the audit to LICRAT’s lawyer, Andy Lester. The Attorney General’s Office had tried to claim that the audit should remain confidential, but the State Auditor’s revelation indicated that Pruitt himself had waived any right of confidentiality by releasing the audit to the very subject of the audit.
Attorney General Hunter subsequently filed a motion to dismiss CfA’s lawsuit, prompting a court hearing. During the hearing on February 23, 2018 – attended by both State Auditor Jones and Attorney General Hunter – the District Court of Oklahoma County sided with CfA and tossed out the Attorney General’s motion to dismiss. Notably, senior assistant attorney general Charles Rogers revealed during the hearing that he had filed nine subpoenas to help auditors investigate LICRAT, which had not been previously known to the public.
Realizing that the court would eventually force him to release the audit, on April 9, 2018, Hunter posted the audit and supporting documents on the AG’s website. According to the released audit documents, investigators had indeed uncovered “considerable circumstantial evidence” of criminal wrongdoing and a conspiracy against the state.
Why Were the Documents Kept Secret?
While CfA was successful in securing the release of the LICRAT audit documents, it remains unclear why Pruitt and Hunter went to great lengths to keep the audit secret.
On April 5, 2018, CfA, represented by American Oversight, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to compel the release of records regarding the Tar Creek site and efforts by Oklahoma officials to suppress the audit report. The EPA failed to adequately respond to two Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by CfA in February 2018, one regarding emails and other communications between Pruitt’s EPA office and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office as well as communications within EPA related to Tar Creek, and the other seeking communications between EPA employees involved in the Tar Creek audit.
Additionally, on April 10, 2015 (the day after Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter released the LICRAT audit), CfA filed a lawsuit in the District Court of Oklahoma County against AG Hunter for failing to release communications between Scott Pruitt and United States Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) about LICRAT.
On December 6, 2017, Politico Magazine reported that Pruitt may have refused to release the audit to avoid embarrassing Sen. Inhofe, who promoted and endorsed the plan to establish the trust with federal money, a plan described as Sen. Inhofe’s “environmental legacy.” On December 11, 2017, CfA submitted an Oklahoma Open Records Act request to Attorney General Hunter for copies of communications between Pruitt’s office and Sen. Inhofe’s office regarding LICRAT and Tar Creek. The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office refused to release any documents in response to CfA’s request. Both lawsuits are ongoing.
“Whatever Pruitt’s original reason for suppressing the report, it now has national significance.” – Sharon Lerner, The Intercept
In The News
Our lawsuit has received considerable press coverage in Oklahoma in addition to national attention. Some examples include:
- Watchdog group files lawsuit against state officials regarding Tar Creek Superfund site (KFOR)
- The Environmental Scandal in Scott Pruitt’s Backyard (Politico Magazine)
- Tar Creek Superfund Site makes Pruitt’s priority list (Miami News Record)
- State auditor asks court to force him to release Tar Creek audit (Tulsa World)
- Auditor responds to Open Records Act LICRAT lawsuit (Miami News Record)
- Scott Pruitt revealed findings of Tar Creek investigation to subjects of the investigation (The Oklahoman)
- Tar Creek open records lawsuit is allowed to move ahead after judge tosses out AG Mike Hunter’s request (The Oklahoman)
- Concealment of Tar Creek audit is likely unprecedented in Oklahoma history, former auditors say (The Oklahoman)
- New Lawsuit Targets EPA Over Audit Scott Pruitt Has Tried to Keep Secret (Mother Jones)
- Watchdog group again sues for Tar Creek documents (The Oklahoman)
- Tar Creek audit points to wrongdoing in Superfund site contracts (Tulsa World)
- Group behind Tar Creek audit lawsuit sues again (The Oklahoman)
- Watchdog group calls for ‘whole story’ behind Scott Pruitt’s involvement in Superfund site scandal (ThinkProgress)
- Why Did The EPA’s Scott Pruitt Suppress A Report On Corruption in Oklahoma? (The Intercept)
- Another Problem for Pruitt: Deadline in Tar Creek Audit Suit (Bloomberg BNA)