California's attorney general has sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to respond adequately to a Freedom of Information Act request from April.
California officials in April filed a FOIA request seeking records concerning the process the agency is using to ensure that Administrator Scott Pruitt is in compliance with federal ethics regulations and obligations. The request also sought records related to the EPA's policies and procedures for determining who, if anyone, can assume the powers of the administrator if he is recused or disqualified from participating in a matter.
In an Aug. 11 suit, Attorney General Xavier Becerra alleged that the EPA failed to respond to the FOIA request in the way required within the legally mandated 20 days. "EPA has not produced any documents to plaintiff, and EPA has not claimed any exemptions allowing it to withhold documents," the lawsuit asserts.
"The EPA is legally required to respond to our FOIA request. Administrator Pruitt and the Trump administration are not above the law," Becerra said in a statement. "The public has a right to know whether Administrator Pruitt and the EPA have complied with federal ethics laws."
Pruitt announced in May that he would recuse himself from the legal cases he participated in as attorney general of Oklahoma but declined to step back from any regulatory actions associated with the same rules he litigated. Under the direction of President Donald Trump, Pruitt has been reviewing regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rule, and has already taken steps to repeal those rules and others that were promulgated under the Obama administration.
California officials say that since recusing himself from some litigation, Pruitt has not been transparent about the extent to which EPA's ethics officials have been allowed to evaluate and authorize his involvement in regulatory actions.
In response to the new lawsuit, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said EPA's "dedicated and hard-working career staff are working as quickly as possible to respond to all incoming FOIA requests and meet their legal deadlines." She said EPA staff reached out to California officials twice to update them on the request, which Bowman called "comprehensive."
"It's unfortunate that California is suing the agency, draining resources that could be better spent protecting human health and the environment — rather than working with EPA's career staff, as they can gather all the information requested," Bowman said.
The California FOIA request covered 32 different points, asking for documents ranging from written policies on an administrator recusal, to email communications, personnel directives, decisions made by ethics officials and more.