EPA Head Pruitt Claims to Address Ethics, Raises Concerns

Scott Pruitt, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, sure has been busy since he took over the agency. He’s spent most of his time cancelling, stalling, or starting the deconstruction of numerous public protection actions that the Obama administration took, and plenty of time promoting himself. None of this is actually protecting the environment, mind you.

Despite this flurry of activity, Mr. Pruitt has been slow to address a major issue raised both during his confirmation process and his brief tenure as EPA Administrator—his ability to be impartial with respect to public protections EPA administers. In particular, though Senators (on numerous occasions—e.g., here, here, and here), a state attorney general, and public interest organizations have pressed for answers, Mr. Pruitt has been very tight-lipped about whether he has participated in litigation in which Oklahoma is suing EPA (which he brought while acting as Oklahoma’s Attorney General) or whether he has worked on related matters.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Pruitt signed a memo [subscription required] last Thursday, in which he says: “This recusal statement addresses all of my ethics obligations.”  Not so fast, Mr. Administrator.

Mr. Pruitt’s memo creates more questions than it answers. One can only conclude his ambiguity and creatively-worded statements are an attempt to deceive and misdirect. Specifically, the memo announces his recusal from several pieces of ongoing litigation, yet raises obvious questions about the extent of those recusals.

  • The memo contains one outright falsehood (or gob-smacking mistake). Mr. Pruitt claims that a case pending in the Supreme Court is one in which Oklahoma “joined other states in filing an amicus brief” and Oklahoma was “not a party.” Several states filed a brief in that case in April, and—as you can see from the front page—Oklahoma was one of them, as a party to the case (a “respondent”), not as an amicus (or “friend of the court”). And this isn’t just a technical oversight. Mr. Pruitt’s memo suggests that he is participating in the case or may do so in the future, which would be improper. 
  • Mr. Pruitt says he has not participated in any of the cases listed “officially at all.” Huh? Is he “unofficially” participating? The government ethics rules bar participation—not just “official” participation. The public deserves to know if he’s been participating in these cases in any manner.
  • The memo seems intentionally unclear about any precautions taken thus far to avoid Pruitt’s participation in these cases. In particular, Mr. Pruitt says, “I have taken or will take” certain steps to screen himself from participation. But these are active cases, and Mr. Pruitt has been in office for almost three months—there’s a big difference between “have taken” and “will take.” Have there been no screening mechanisms in place for the past three months? If not, what has he done that could affect these cases?

Beyond the litigation, Mr. Pruitt clearly intends to participate in EPA actions to amend or replace rules that are directly at issue in the cases from which he is recused. The fact that he’s required to recuse himself from roughly a dozen lawsuits highlights Mr. Pruitt’s numerous prior attacks on rules that safeguard the American public. His plan to participate in EPA’s evaluation of these exact same rules raises big red flags about whether EPA will conduct rulemakings in a fair and merit-based way. 

More broadly, Mr. Pruitt is simply unfit to lead EPA. His statements and actions make it clear that his allegiances lie with industry at the expense of EPA’s public health protection mission. NRDC will continue to insist that he meet his legal, ethical, and moral obligations. The American public will hold him to the same standard. We should all expect the EPA Administrator to protect public health, and not work to fulfill his pro-polluter agenda from his days in Oklahoma.  

About the Authors

Jon Devine

Senior Attorney, Water program

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