We know that Scott Pruitt is a skeptic of widely accepted climate change science, but there’s more to the story of why he’s unfit to serve as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt accepted donations from agribusiness interests and engaged in a years-long smear campaign against The Humane Society of the United States (The HSUS) — a crusade that ceased only after we took him to court.
There’s no reason to believe that Pruitt won’t continue, if he’s confirmed to head EPA, to defame his opponents on behalf of special interests and abuse the power of his office.
The story starts more than a decade ago, when The HSUS drove passage of a ballot measure to ban cockfighting in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Farm Bureau (OFB) vigorously opposed the effort, and enlisted an ally in the form of Scott Pruitt. In 2014, Attorney General Pruitt announced his intent to investigate The HSUS based on the (false) assertion that we fundraised off tornadoes that struck Oklahoma in 2013 and then used those funds out of state.
We understood OFB would want to caricature our organization.
Pruitt’s motivation would reveal itself over time, as money flowed in from poultry industry executives, the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, and even from Forrest Lucas, a zealous anti-animal welfare advocate from Indiana. HSUS turned into a pay-day opportunity for the Attorney General and his multiple campaign accounts. Pruitt apparently intended to use The HSUS as a whipping post to further his political ambitions.
Soon, we began receiving requests for information from the attorney general’s office about our fundraising practices.
We complied, making clear that we never conducted fundraising based on tornadoes that struck the Oklahoma City suburbs. Yet, before his office had received any of the information requested, Pruitt issued a consumer alert against us, repeating his false accusations and claiming that his office received donor complaints.
Pruitt’s staff would later acknowledge privately to us that they had not received a single complaint from any contributor alleging they had been misled by HSUS advertisements or solicitations. The whole thing was a swirling fabrication — an attorney general abusing his authority to target the adversaries of his political funders.
Just hours after Pruitt issued his consumer alert, a front group run by Washington, D.C., public-relations operative Rick Berman (whose talking points Pruitt clearly relied upon), launched a week-long advertising campaign defaming us in the state. That campaign specifically referred to Pruitt’s investigation and, though Pruitt denied any cooperation with the group, he never explained how they were ready to produce and then place their ads within hours of his alert.
The Oklahoma Solicitation of Charitable Contributions Act requires that “information obtained pursuant to the powers conferred by this act shall not be made public or disclosed by the Attorney General...” Yet throughout his investigation of The HSUS, Pruitt turned what was supposed to be a confidential process into a public event.
He issued overbroad requests for information, eventually asking for personal information about our board of directors, as well as documents pertaining to internal governance. Enough was enough.
Two years ago, The HSUS filed suit in Oklahoma state court to challenge Pruitt’s harassment, asking the court to stop Pruitt from forcing us to produce the remaining privileged and confidential materials. Judge Patricia G. Parrish, sitting in the Seventh Judicial District of Oklahoma, ruled almost entirely in our favor on the merits.
Nonprofit marketing blog “The Agitator” called Pruitt’s efforts a:
“misuse and abuse of fundraising regulations by an elected official with the goal of intimidating, weakening or discrediting a large and respected nonprofit.”
But Pruitt and OFB had a secondary goal: to pave the way for a constitutional amendment to give big agriculture free rein in Oklahoma.
That referendum, dubbed “Right to Farm” by its supporters, sought to change state law to effectively inoculate farming interests against any sort of legislative oversight. OFB knew we would fight it, and intended to neutralize us before we could do so.
Despite Pruitt’s best efforts, including a column he penned in the “Tulsa World” advocating for passage of the ballot measure, Oklahomans saw through it. In November, voters rejected “Right to Farm” by more than 20 points.
It’s not the role of government to decide whose voice should be heard, and Pruitt’s abuse of power should outrage religious leaders, pro-life groups, and others with a values-based view of the world. Those tasked with confirmation might take note, as well.
Wayne Pacelle is president & CEO of The Humane Society of the United States.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.