WASHINGTON – A non-profit Washington, DC watchdog group, Campaign for Accountability (CfA) has filed a lawsuit (CV-2017-2335) in the District Court of Oklahoma against Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones for failing to release copies of audits and documents related to corruption allegations associated with the management of the Tar Creek Reclamation site in the state, according to their press release.
“While he was serving as the Attorney General of Oklahoma, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declined to bring criminal charges in response to an audit that found evidence of criminal wrongdoing at the Tar Creek Reclamation site,” said CfA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens in a press release issued by Monday, Nov. 27 by CfA. “Why did he refuse to bring charges? We don’t know because the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office has repeatedly refused to release documents related to this audit.”
CfA's filing claims that on April 21, 2011, then, AG Pruitt sent a letter to State Auditor Jones requesting that the Auditor’s Office investigate “suspected unlawful contracting practices of the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Trust (LICRAT), a Public Trust and Agency of the State of Oklahoma.”
LICRAT was created to oversee the buyout and demolition of vacant homes near Tar Creek of a 40 square mile area in northeast Oklahoma, including Picher contaminated by decades of lead and zinc mining. Concerns about unlawful contracting practices with LICRAT had been brought to the AG’s attention by then, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn.
CfA states in their filing, while conducting the audit, the State Auditor’s office found evidence of criminal wrongdoing at the site. Jones reported his findings to Pruitt, but CfA says, without explanation, Pruitt rejected the findings and declined to bring criminal charges.
In 2015, the auditor’s office asked Pruitt to authorize the release of the LICRAT audit pursuant to the Oklahoma Open Records Act (ORA). Pruitt denied the request stating, “our office is concerned about publication of unsubstantiated criminal allegations against private citizens.” The auditor’s office disputed 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.”
According to CfA, on November 9, 2017, CfA made an Open Records Act request of the auditor’s office for the records, following the unsuccessful efforts of E&E News to obtain them. In response, the auditor explained that he wanted to release the records, but had been instructed not to do so by the AG’s office. CfA filed a request for the records directly with the AG’s office, which denied the request.
In the filing CfA quotes a response from Trey Davis, Director of Administration for the Auditor's Office, writing on behalf of the office, stating, “Let me be clear, if it was up to us, we would publicly release the audit and all of its associated work papers. We uphold the public's right to know how its tax dollars are being spent. We strenuously promote accountability and transparency in both the action of public officials and expenditure of public funds.”
The CfA filing says Davis concluded, “We regret that we are unable to respond to your request as we find the position of the AG to be untenable despite that office being regarded as the state's chief law enforcer. In the final analysis, we are auditors, and we will- reluctantly- follow this legal position as expressed until such time as the opinion has been overturned by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
On Nov. 14, CfA sent an ORA request to the AG's Office requesting access to the audits and related documents regarding LICRA, and CfA received a response the following day stating the ORA exempts disclosure of the AG files.
Campaign for Accountability is a nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions, according to their website information.
CfA's Stevens continued in the CfA press release, “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.”
The Oklahoma Attorney General's Communications Director Terri Watkins said Monday afternoon their office had not yet been served officially with the lawsuit and would not comment until such time.
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.