EPA chief Scott Pruitt is under ethics investigation for lying to Senate

The Oklahoma Bar Association is investigating whether the ex-state attorney general lied during his confirmation

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published March 31, 2017 7:45PM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, is under investigation for misleading the Senate during his confirmation hearing. The Oklahoma Bar Association is investigating a complaint that Pruitt lied when he swore under oath that he never used personal email to conduct official business while he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

Pruitt may have violated the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct when he told a U.S. Senate Committee at his confirmation hearings that he only used his official attorney general’s email address to conduct official business.

“I use only my official OAG [office of the attorney general] email address and government-issued phone to conduct official business,” Pruitt told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during his Jan. 18 confirmation hearing. According to emails released in an Open Records Act lawsuit last month, however, Pruitt did use a private email address for official business.

On the eve of his confirmation last month, Pruitt was ordered by an Oklahoma judge to turn over thousands of communications between his office and the fossil fuel industry. Before those records were made public, however, Senate Republicans rushed to narrowly confirm Pruitt to lead the EPA. After his confirmation to lead the EPA, it was revealed that Pruitt’s personal email account was used for communication with the American Legislative Exchange Council and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers while he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

“Lo and behold, the documents Scott Pruitt wanted to keep hidden have confirmed our suspicion that he used his personal email address to conduct official state business and that he was not honest with the Senate about this during his confirmation process,” Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said on the Senate floor after Republicans rushed to confirm Pruitt.

The five Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee sent Pruitt a letter after the emails were released last month, asking him to “correct the record” on numerous issues where they said he was misleading. In their letter, the Democrats asked Pruitt to submit a new answer to the question of whether he ever used his personal account for business, and to commit to avoiding personal email use as EPA administrator.

The Oklahoma Bar Association complaint was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, which works to protect endangered species and an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Professor Kristen van de Biezenbos told The Tulsa World: “as a law professor, I’m invested in the legal profession. I don’t want my students to see someone who is a member of the Oklahoma Bar Association violate its ethics rules and no one do anything about it.”

Attorney Amy Atwood from the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement that she was “very pleased” about the investigation.  “Lying to Congress is a serious ethical breach, and it doesn’t help that Pruitt’s use of private emails reflect potential collusion with the very oil and gas industry he’s now supposed to be regulating,” she said.

Gina Hendryx, general counsel for the Oklahoma Bar Association, told Oklahoma's KOKH that Pruitt has been contacted for a response to the complaint. John Williams, executive director of the Oklahoma Bar Association, told the Tulsa World that the complaint against Pruitt would be treated the same as any other and will remain confidential. Once the investigation is complete, it will be presented to the Professional Responsibility Commission for further action.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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