OKLAHOMA CITY - A 2014 letter reveals former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt released the state audit, or at least parts of the LICRAT (Lead Impacted Community Assistance Trust) audit, to those same officials' legal counsel, Edmund attorney Andy Lester. The letter also reveals the board reviewed the audit, according to Lester.
At the same time and since, Pruitt, who now serves as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, and his successor Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, have refused to release the LICRAT audit to the public.
At the audit’s conclusion and after review, Pruitt declined to file any charges although Oklahoma State Auditor Gary Jones has expressed disagreement.
“...while the Audit properly concludes there is lack of evidence, it improperly includes unsubstantiated and completely unfounded allegations of 'circumstantial evidence' of a 'potential conspiracy against the state,'” Lester wrote to Pruitt in the 2014 letter.
The Board of Directors of LICRAT is composed of private citizens who served without compensation, an “incredibly difficult job” of overseeing remediation of one of the most toxic Superfund sites in America, Lester claims in his letter.
LICRAT's responsibility and purpose was to oversee the federal buyout to purchase homes and properties located within the Tar Creek Superfund site in Picher and Cardin.
The LICRAT audit was requested by Pruitt in 2011 to investigate suspicious contracting practices after then Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn brought the issue to his attention. Those concerns included allegations of bidders lying on bids to bolster and win bids for contract work.
Lester writes in his letter to Pruitt, the audit involved a contract awarded by the Oklahoma Department of Central Services (DCS) in Dec. 2010. Parties to the contract were CWF Enterprises, Inc. and DCS with the purpose of completing demolition of structures and facilitating debris removal in the Picher and Cardin area. Lester contends in his letter that LICRAT was the “Using Agency” on the contract and was not the owner, creator, administrator or manager of the contract. He goes on to write the audit concludes there is no direct evidence of a conspiracy against the State with only the one exception.
Lester's June 30, 2014, letter is an exhibit included with Oklahoma State Auditor Gary Jones' legal response to Hunter's support of Pruitt's decision not to release the audit to a Washington DC watchdog group, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), and the public.
CfA filed an Open Records Act (ORA) request on Nov.9, 2017 and a subsequent lawsuit on Nov. 27, 2017, listing Jones and Hunter as the defendants in order to obtain the audit.
In legal responses to CfA's lawsuit, Jones, through his attorney has agreed and argued the audit should be released, but says he is prohibited from releasing the audit by the former and current Attorney Generals. Jones also asks for the judge to grant him the ability to release the audit.
“Defendant Jones does not know why Pruitt declined to take action regarding the LICRAT. However, it seems that it was not because of Defendant Jones' audit reports or after being advised of the findings of Jones' audit, as the audit found evidence of violations of criminal statutes. Likewise, it seems that Pruitt possibly declined to take action because of the report that the attorney for the LICRAT presented to Pruitt, which he did after Pruitt provided him a copy or at least part of Jones' audit report and supporting records," Jones claims in his legal response filing.
Jones argues he never acted as Pruitt's “agent” in the investigation as Hunter claims, but simply performed the audit at the AG's request, and states the State Auditor does not have such authority or the ability of an agent or of law enforcement.
Jones contends Hunter's arguments, of issues the disclosure might cause, are without merit. Jones asked Pruitt to release the audit publicly as early as 2015.
Pruitt refused telling Jones in a letter he was, “concerned about publication of the unsubstantiated criminal allegations against private citizens.”
Jones' legal response claims the audit is public record because audited government entities pay for the audits directly with taxpayer funds.
“It is for this reason that the public interest in disclosure of the records of Jones' audit of the LICRAT- interest in a public project, the cost of which was paid with public funds – is greater than the public interest in denial of access to them,” Jones' attorney argues. “Actually, there is no public interest in denial of access to the records of Jones' audit of the LICRAT, which pertain to a public trust performing work for the public in exchange for payment with public funds.”
CfA makes claims similar to Jones' in their legal response to Hunter's motion to dismiss in the ORA lawsuit, and requests the court deny Hunter's motion and require an answer to their petition within 10 days of the Court's order.
CfA argues the AG may not block access to records created by the State Auditor in fulfilling his statutory requirements, the LICRAT audit is an audit of public records, and the work of the Multi-County Grand Jury is not impacted by release of the audit.
The watchdog group's attorney also contends the ORA authorizes litigation to determine whether records have been unlawfully withheld, and the burden of establishing an exemption to release the records falls upon the AG.
“There's been a flurry of activity in the case, “CfA's Executive Director Daniel Stevens said. “The auditor's filing includes the letter from the LICRAT attorney to Pruitt, which references some of what was in the Auditor's report. This filing makes it even more clear why the audit should be released.”
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.