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Pruitt Ordered Staff to Delay FOIA Requests, Top House Dem Says
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt directed staff to delay or withhold the release of requested public records relating to his scandal-ridden tenure at the agency, according to the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
"Your actions are particularly troubling in light of multiple reports that you have retaliated against EPA staff who disclose waste, fraud and abuse," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland wrote in letter to Pruitt Monday.
In the letter, Pruitt's former aides told Cummings' staff that the EPA boss appeared to be intentionally slowing down Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses for records related to the administrator, and directed staff not to respond until requests from the Obama administration had been completed.
Cummings also alleged that Pruitt instituted a new review process requiring political appointees to review FOIA responses before they are released.
"Under your tenure, EPA's front office is now responding more slowly, withholding more information, and rejecting more requests, according to EPA's own data and independent sources," Cummings wrote. "Combined with your refusal to produce documents requested by Congress, your actions in delaying records under FOIA raise concerns about a fundamental lack of transparency at EPA."
The congressman said Pruitt's actions violate EPA and Department of Justice rules, in which simple requests should be processed more quickly than complex requests.
"The orders you apparently gave to delay producing documents relating to your tenure appear to directly contradict EPA's own FOIA regulations, as well as guidance issued by the Department of Justice," he wrote.
FOIA rules require government organizations to respond to a FOIA request with a denial or grant of access within 20 business days, although the agency may exceed that time limit if it needs to request more information in order to process the request.
Cummings then cited a report from the Project on Government Oversight, which found that only 16.6 percent of FOIA requests to the administrator's office were closed from Jan. 20, 2017 to Dec. 29, 2017, compared to a closure rate of 78.76 percent for all EPA requests during that same period.
In response to the letter, EPA spokesperson Kelsi Daniell told Reuters in a statement that Pruitt's office has seen a 200 percent increase in FOIA requests and "is working to release them in a timely manner."
"We will respond through the proper channels," Daniell said. "When Administrator Pruitt arrived at EPA he inherited a backlog of FOIA requests, some dating back to 2008, and over the last year and a half, EPA has worked tirelessly to clear this backlog."
Pruitt has been at the center of mounting controversy ever since he took office. The Sierra Club's own FOIA requests uncovered droves of information about Pruitt's questionable behavior in just the last few weeks:
- Reports that Pruitt spent over $1,500 in taxpayer dollars on 12 pens.
- Reports that Pruitt had his taxpayer-funded aides hunt for apartments for him.
- Reports that Pruitt abused his position at EPA in an attempt to secure a Chick-fil-a franchise for his wife.
- Reports that a major Trump donor helped Pruitt pick his Science Advisory Board.
"Scott Pruitt will do everything possibly to operate in the shadows because every time his veil of secrecy is pulled back, we find more reasons he should resign," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune in a statement. "Documents obtained by the Sierra Club's FOIA litigation have revealed even more about Pruitt's unethical and potentially illegal behavior, so it's no wonder he'd try and obstruct the process. It's essential that the EPA be completely transparent and forthright when it's comes to releasing public information under FOIA."
Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook had similar sentiments.
"From his $43,000 secure phone booth to his failure to keep records of decision-making, Scott Pruitt has taken astonishing steps to shield his activities from the public," Cook said in a statement. "Meddling with the long-established FOIA process is the latest indication he clearly has a lot to hide."
"Who can blame Pruitt for taking steps to keep the public in the dark?" he asked. "Every time the EPA releases documents through a FOIA request, more revelations come to light showing he's not only the worst EPA administrator in history, but also the most corrupt cabinet secretary in modern times."
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