Analysis: Scott Pruitt's misleading testimony from this week's EPA confirmation hearing

Martha Roberts

It was clear from his confirmation hearing that nimbleness with words has been part of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nominee Scott Pruitt’s rapid rise. He dodged questions, used clever phrasing, and contradicted past positions when they were inconvenient.

But Pruitt’s ethical slickness went beyond just presenting a camera-ready version of himself. His answers to some of the most important questions regarding his conflicts of interests were deeply misleading.

Pruitt’s long history of close ties to the industries he would oversee at the EPA is well-known.

He’s taken large contributions from energy interests for his campaigns and raised millions more for partisan political groups. He’s routinely accepted money from companies that joined him lawsuits that would benefit those companies. He’s even had industry lawyers write letters for him, which he put on official stationary and sent to federal agencies.

But at this week’s hearing he attempted to deny some of the disturbing elements of those alliances. Consider this exchange with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Pruitt dodged money questions

Whitehouse described contributions made by big energy companies to the Republican Attorneys General Association, a political group Pruitt helped lead. The senators wanted to know if Pruitt had solicited those contributions.

WHITEHOUSE: “Did you ask them for money?”

PRUITT: “As I indicated, I attended fundraising events…”

WHITEHOUSE: “But that’s different. Attending fundraising is one thing, asking them is my question. Did you ask them for money?”

PRUITT: “I mean, specifically, you’d have to ask about certain…certain entities…I don’t know if…”

WHITEHOUSE: “Those are the entities: Koch Industries, Murray Energy, ExxonMobil, Devon Energy.”

PRUITT: “I did not ask of…ah…ah…Koch…or…or….what were the other ones?”

WHITEHOUSE: “Murray Energy, Exxon Mobil, Devon Energy.”

PRUITT: “I have not asked them for money for – on behalf of – RAGA.”

Pruitt’s answer dodges the important truth. Letters [PDF] obtained through an open records request show Pruitt’s chief of staff had, in fact, asked for help from Devon Energy to fund the Republican Attorneys General Association.

Crystal Drwenski wrote to Devon lobbyists asking them to intercede with the American Petroleum Institute – a trade organization for Devon Energy and the oil industry – to get API to buy a “membership,” a euphemism for giving a contribution in RAGA. So Pruitt had not solicited these funds, but his top operatives did.

His answer is the kind of clever legal dodge that does nothing to inspire confidence in his ethical behavior.

A cozy relationship with polluters

The same is true of his refusal to reveal anything about his meetings at a West Virginia resort with those same companies during a RAGA conference, or his office’s failure to answer an open records request – filed two years ago – for more recent communications between his office and major energy industry interests.

What we do know of Pruitt’s conduct provides little reassurance. His hand-in-glove relationship with polluting industries is further revealed in communications with a major Washington law firm, Hunton & Williams.

This firm is well known for representing the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a front group for polluting power companies that has repeatedly fought clean air protections.

Open records act documents show [PDF] Hunton & Williams systematically shepherding Oklahoma Attorney General comments opposing EPA’s carbon pollution standards for new power plants – helping recruit “a very good turnout of states” to join as well as providing background materials and formatting and hand written edits.

They also show Hunton & Williams staff actively facilitating Pruitt’s Summit on Federalism and the Future of Fossil Fuels – arranging conference calls, recruiting attendees, suggesting agendas and topics – together with Andrew Miller,  another energy industry representative.

For those already concerned about Pruitt’s opposition to rules limiting air pollution, the hearing was not reassuring. For those who didn’t know of his record of representing the interests of industry above all others, perhaps they learned something new.

See 6 comments