American Oversight Represents Campaign for Accountability in Federal Lawsuit Seeking Tar Creek Records
Campaign for Accountability (CfA), represented by American Oversight, today filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to compel the release of records related to the Tar Creek Superfund site in northeastern Oklahoma.
In 2014, the Oklahoma state auditor issued a report showing evidence of criminal wrongdoing in a government program intended to help families who lived near the heavily-polluted Tar Creek site. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who then served as Oklahoma Attorney General, refused to pursue criminal charges and, for perhaps the first time in state history, blocked the release of the auditor’s report. Pruitt’s successor, Attorney General Mike Hunter, has continued to prevent the report’s release.
CfA Executive Director Daniel Stevens said, “First Scott Pruitt and his cronies covered up evidence of potential criminal wrongdoing at a Superfund site, and now they’re trying to cover their tracks. Oklahomans deserve to learn who profited from the Tar Creek cleanup process. What are Scott Pruitt and Mike Hunter so desperate to hide?”
“As both Oklahoma Attorney General and EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt has fought tooth and nail to prevent the public from knowing the truth about what happened with the Tar Creek buyback program,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “Tar Creek started as an environmental tragedy, morphed into a criminal scandal, and is turning out as a political cover-up.”
The lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeks records from EPA regarding the Tar Creek site and ongoing efforts by Oklahoma officials to suppress the audit report. EPA failed to adequately respond to two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted by CfA in February, one regarding emails and other communications between Pruitt’s EPA office and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office as well as communications within EPA related to Tar Creek, and the other seeking communications between EPA employees involved in the Tar Creek audit.
The suit is CfA’s latest action in its effort to uncover the facts behind the controversial buyback program in Tar Creek. In November 2017, CfA filed a separate lawsuit in Oklahoma state court to force the release of the audit after Attorney General Hunter rejected CfA’s Oklahoma Public Records Act request and prevented the state auditor’s office from releasing the report. In response to CfA’s lawsuit, State Auditor Gary Jones revealed that Pruitt had previously released the audit to the subject of the investigation. Nevertheless, Hunter has refused to publicly release the audit. Oklahoma Judge Patricia Parrish denied the attorney general’s motion to dismiss CfA’s case, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.
Tar Creek is one of the most polluted locations in the country and was among the first sites included in the Superfund program when it was created in 1983. Tar Creek remains on the Superfund list to this day, and EPA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 35 years trying to clean up the site.
In 2004, Oklahoma initiated a program to buy back Tar Creek residents’ homes and allow them to move elsewhere, but the program was riddled with corruption and cronyism. According to a Politico investigation, homeowners with similar houses were offered vastly different prices by the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Trust (LICRAT), the panel tasked with running the buyback program, depending on whether they knew members of the trust. In the same investigation, Politico reported that most Tar Creek residents believed the contractors selected to demolish homes were hired based on personal connections, not qualifications. The winning contractors’ services cost taxpayers millions of dollars more than bids from other contracting companies.
In 2011, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt tasked State Auditor Jones with investigating the buyback program after then-Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) sent Pruitt a long list of allegations regarding the program. After a two year inquiry, Jones sent the final report —which showed evidence of criminal wrongdoing, according to court documents obtained by The Oklahoman—to Pruitt in 2014. Pruitt sat on the audit for over a year, then in 2015 announced he would not bring charges against any parties.
The Superfund program is currently overseen by Albert Kelly, a former Oklahoma banker with business ties to Pruitt but no relevant experience in environmental cleanup efforts. In May 2017, just weeks before Pruitt appointed Kelly to oversee the Superfund program, Kelly was fined $125,000 by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) for violating a law or regulation related to a loan. In July 2017, the FDIC banned Kelly from the banking industry for life. According to calendars obtained by American Oversight, Kelly participated in at least one EPA conference call related to the Tar Creek site in May 2017.
Nonpartisan ethics watchdog American Oversight, which is representing CfA in the new lawsuit, has successfully sued EPA to compel the release of numerous internal documents over the past year. Records uncovered by American Oversight’s lawsuits against EPA include Pruitt’s calendars and phone logs, agency communications with pesticide industry lobbyists, and receipts showing that Pruitt spent $43,000 installing a secret phone booth in his office.