WHY DID THE EPA’S SCOTT PRUITT SUPPRESS A REPORT ON CORRUPTION IN OKLAHOMA?
By Sharon Lerner
WASHINGTON (The Intercept) - AN AUDIT RELEASED this week found evidence of corruption in how contracts were awarded at the Tar Creek Superfund site in Oklahoma. Gary Jones, the state auditor and inspector who wrote the report, submitted it to then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt back in January 2014. But Pruitt inexplicably refused to release it.
Pruitt’s successor, Mike Hunter, had also refused to release the report since he began serving as attorney general after Pruitt left the job in February 2017 to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. But on Monday, facing a lawsuit demanding the release of the audit, Hunter changed his mind.
The audit, which looked into wrongdoing by a trust set up by the state to buy homes in two lead-contaminated towns in the Superfund site in the northeast corner of the state, found “considerable circumstantial evidence that a conspiracy may have existed” and irregularities with the bidding process that resulted in a contractor getting a windfall of more than $1 million.
At the heart of the improprieties described in the report is a man named Jack Dalrymple, the manager of the trust set up to raze the homes and businesses in Picher and Cardin. Both towns are set amid lead mines that posed such significant health threats to the residents that the buildings were to be demolished. Although the original bid for the work came in at less than $600,000, the trust run by Dalrymple wound up paying $3.4 million for the work to a carpet cleaning company that had none of the heavy equipment necessary to do the job and little experience with demolition, according to the audit.
The report concluded, “We believe the above provides sufficient circumstantial evidence for additional investigation into a potential conspiracy against the state.” Yet, Pruitt never investigated or pressed charges when he was attorney general — nor did he inform the public of the report’s findings.
The four-year delay in releasing the information has been frustrating to Jones, the state auditor and inspector. “The citizens have a right to know,” said Jones. “Our job is to provide accountability. But how can you provide that when your work’s not made available?”
For the rest of the country, the operative question is why the former Oklahoma attorney general and current administer of the EPA refused to release the report in the first place. An article in Politico floated the theory that Pruitt might have wanted to protect Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who endorsed and got funding for the trust, which used public money to buy people’s homes and businesses.
The audit could embarrass Inhofe by showing that the relocation project he spearheaded didn’t go well. And it certainly disgraced Dalrymple, who is tied to the senator through his organization, River Bottom Sportsmen for Disabled Veterans. The organization holds a deer hunt for disabled veterans on Dalrymple’s property in Miami, Oklahoma, and Inhofe has been known to fry fish for the veterans before they head out for the hunt. In response to a request for comment, Inhofe’s office sent an editorial from the Tulsa World, which argued that the senator had no reason to be concerned about the audit.
The evidence of corruption at Tar Creek also reflects badly on Pruitt. Not only was he the head law enforcement official in the state when some of the problems transpired and the audit was conducted, he also aligned himself with the subjects of the audit, according to The Oklahoman. In February, that paper reported that, while Pruitt kept the results of the audit from the public, he gave them to the attorney representing the trust that was being investigated. The attorney then shared the audit with his clients, according to the paper.
And some suspect there’s more to the story.
“News reports indicate that Pruitt has a close relationship with Inhofe,” said Daniel Stevens, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, the nonprofit that sued to get the audit released. “We want to understand their communications about the site.” On Tuesday, the group filed another suit, this one demanding that Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter release Pruitt’s and Inhofe’s communications about the work of the trust at the Tar Creek site.
The EPA did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Whatever Pruitt’s original reason for suppressing the report, it now has national significance. “This whole situation is about the way Pruitt handled alleged wrongdoing at one site,” said Stevens. “He now oversees the entire Superfund program across the country. What does this mean about how he’s running the entire program?”
The scandal of the suppression of the Tar Creek audit has been added to the swirl of ethics controversies the embattled EPA administrator now faces over unauthorized raises he gave his employees; his rental of a condo from a lobbyist at below-market prices; and extravagant expenditures — on, among other things, first-class plane tickets, a $43,000 soundproof phone booth, and a security detail that employed 20 armed agents.
The firing of a staffer at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is triggering speculation in the administrative state that the move “would stiffen the resolve of Pruitt’s critics within the agency.”
A Politico report claims that Mario Caraballo, deputy associate administrator at EPA’s Office of Homeland Security, was fired because he disagreed with an assessment justifying increased security for administrator Scott Pruitt because of ongoing threats to him and his family.
Other officials at the agency, however, have spoken publicly about the need for enhanced security based on a range of threats, including death threats, aimed at Pruitt.
Patrick Sullivan, EPA’s assistant inspector general for investigations, told CNN in October 2017 that the threats against Pruitt were numerous.
“We have at least four times — four to five times the number of threats against Mr. Pruitt than we had against Ms. [Gina] McCarthy,” Sullivan said, referring to the last sitting EPA administrator in the Obama administration. “They run the variety of direct death threats — ‘I’m going to put a bullet in your brain’ — to implied threats — ‘if you don’t classify this particular chemical in this particular way, I’m going to hurt you.”
In an interview in January, Sullivan provided more details about those threats.
In an interview with E&E News, Patrick Sullivan, EPA’s assistant IG for investigations, said the watchdog opened roughly 70 threat probes in fiscal 2017, including cases and complaints related to EPA facilities and personnel. That surpassed the total of about 45 such probes into threats against EPA from fiscal 2016.
And in an interview with Bloomberg News last year, Pruitt noted that he is not in charge of security decisions.
“The level of protection is dictated by the level of threat,” Pruitt said, noting security arrangements are decided by others assessing the situation.”
In February 2018 Bloomberg reported that Henry Barnet, an official with the EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, also confirmed the threats against Pruitt.
“There were incidents where he was being approached — vulgar language, people were being somewhat aggressive towards him — and so the special agent in charge provided documentation — a memo — to me and up the chain of command requesting the administrator be placed in business- or first-class to avoid these potential issues for the safety of the administrator,'” Barnet told Bloomberg.
“The agents have to make sure he’s in a position where they can protect him,” Barnet said. “If he’s surrounded by other members of the public or it’s a threat, their job is to push him and pull him away from those threats. That’s why it is imperative to keep him away from the individuals so they can keep him safe.”
Politico, using anonymous sources, reported:
EPA removed a career staffer Tuesday who approved an internal report that undermined Administrator Scott Pruitt’s claims that he needed around-the-clock bodyguards and other expensive security protection, according to two former agency employees familiar with the situation.
“EPA Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Donna Vizian said the agency would not comment on personnel matters,” Politico reported. “But she added that today’s action ‘was based on a recommendation by the Office of Administration and Resources Management. I am not aware of any connection between the personnel matter and the document mentioned in media reports.’”
“A career EPA staffer predicted Caraballo’s dismissal would stiffen the resolve of Pruitt’s critics within the agency,” Politico reported.
“This isn’t going to frighten staff, this is going to embolden us to leak more to get these criminals out,” the anonymous source told Politico earlier this week. “They need to know we’re not intimidated and we’re going to blow the whistle on anything even borderline questionable.”
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said this week that “Scott Pruitt has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats against him and these threat assessments are conducted within [Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance] using information collected from the [Protective Service Detail], EPA’s Office of Homeland Security, and Inspector General.”
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