Senate Democrats are raising concerns about the energy industry ties of Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to helm the Environmental Protection Agency, pointing to his leading role at a nonprofit group that took money from a central arm of the Koch brothers’ network.
Six Democrats on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee wrote to Pruitt on Tuesday asking for the names of donors, meeting information, internal emails and other details related to his director status at the nonprofit, called the Rule of Law Defense Fund. Formed as an offshoot of the Republican Attorneys General Association, the Defense Fund is organized under a section of the tax code that allows it to keep donors secret — but it received $175,000 in 2014 from Freedom Partners, which coordinates the Kochs’ political activities.
That contribution, combined with past reports about Pruitt’s use of industry talking points in criticism of Obama administration environmental rules, is rousing suspicion among Democrats. In the letter obtained by POLITICO, the six senators said Pruitt’s work with the Defense Fund is a “troubling” sign that the Oklahoma attorney general is too close to the fossil-fuel companies he would regulate as chief of Trump’s EPA.
The Defense Fund took in $855,000 in 2014 and $953,000 last year, according to IRS records. Five Republican state attorneys general joined Pruitt as unpaid directors: Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, Pam Bondi of Florida, Sean Reyes of Utah, Derek Schmidt of Kansas and Alan Wilson of South Carolina. Bondi, whose political committee received a controversial $25,000 donation from Trump’s foundation in 2013, is a member of the president-elect’s transition team.
Defense Fund spokesman Jordan Russell said by email that the group “facilitates study and discussion among attorneys general of a wide range of policy issues, including health care, immigration, federalism, and many other matters affecting states and their citizens.” Trump’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
America Rising Executive Director Brian Rogers, whose conservative group has launched a pro-Pruitt campaign targeting red-state Democrats, slammed the letter as a sign of green groups dictating to Democratic senators.
“This is a partisan fishing expedition by six liberal Democrats who combined have taken more than $1.2 million from far-left environmentalist groups dead-set against any reforms to an out of control EPA,” Rogers said in a statement.
Democrats’ interest in playing up Pruitt’s involvement with the group — part of a broader push to turn moderate senators against his confirmation — stems from a New York Times investigation in 2014 that found Pruitt borrowing language almost word-for-word from oil and gas company Devon Energy in a letter that accused EPA of inflating emissions.
“The confirmation process, starting with your responses to committee questions before your hearing, is an opportunity for you to dispel the notion that the advocacy you have undertaken on environmental issues as Attorney General of Oklahoma has been directed by and for the benefit of the energy industry,” the Democrats wrote to Pruitt.
The letter was signed by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats. The environment panel’s incoming top Democrat, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, did not sign on, nor did Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) or Sens.-elect Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who will join the committee next year.
Dan Kunsman, chief of staff to Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who will assume the environment panel gavel in the new Congress, said committee policy allows senators to question nominees through the chairman rather than on their own.
“Further, the authority to require a nominee to respond to questions following a hearing also rests with the Chairman. That is why members submit their questions to the Chairman to be sent under his or her signature to the nominee,” Kunsman said by email. “This was the precedent for President Obama’s EPA nominees, and will be followed again.”
The Defense Fund’s current president is Samantha Dravis, a former counsel at Freedom Partners and White House aide during the George W. Bush administration who also serves as general counsel at RAGA. Other senior employees as of last year were RAGA Executive Director Scott Will; RAGA Chief Financial Officer Lee Russell; and veteran Alabama operative Jessica Garrison, a former aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s attorney general in waiting, as well as Bill Pryor, a federal appeals court judge on Trump’s Supreme Court short list.
Defense Fund counsel Charlie Spies, a longtime GOP election lawyer, noted that the Democratic letter acknowledges the right of nonprofits to shield their donors’ identities and said the group would “maintain its longstanding policy of maintaining donor confidentiality.”
“It is unfortunate that certain Democrat Senators appear willing to trample First Amendment rights in order to score cheap political points,” Spies said in a statement.
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