The Oklahoma Bar Association agreed to open an investigation into the conduct of U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to address allegations that he violated terms of the state's professional conduct rules during his confirmation hearing in January. The Center for Biological Diversity brought the complaint March 21.
The complaint stems from comments made during the hearing by Pruitt in which he asserted that he had not used a personal email address to conduct official business during his tenure as Oklahoma's attorney general. But days after he was confirmed as the new chief of the EPA, the state was compelled to release thousands of pages of emails exchanged by Pruitt's former staff due to an ongoing court battle. That release revealed several instances in which official emails were sent to an unofficial email address in Pruitt's name.
Oklahoma Bar Association General Counsel Gina Hendryx notified the Center for Biological Diversity in a March 28 letter that an investigation had been opened and the lawyer in question — Pruitt — had been contacted for a response. "We will then conduct whatever further investigation we feel is needed," Hendryx said.
Once the investigation is complete, the matter will be brought to the Professional Responsibility Commission, which will decide whether any further action is necessary. Hendryx explained that the investigation is strictly limited to the ethical and professional conduct of the lawyer and the results must remain confidential.
"I'm very pleased the Oklahoma Bar Association has agreed to investigate this matter. Lying to Congress is a serious ethical breach, and it doesn't help that Pruitt's use of private emails reflect potential collusion with the very oil and gas industry he's now supposed to be regulating," said Amy Atwood, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Atwood said if the bar association finds merit to the complaint, potential disciplinary action could range from public reprimand to a suspension of his bar license and/or disbarment. "Here it is anybody's guess what the bar might do if they find merit to our complaint, and it's within their discretion to decide the appropriate action depending on how serious they take any violation to be," Atwood said.
According to the Oklahoma Bar Association, suspension or disbarment from practicing law typically is reserved for severe misconduct, such as theft of client funds. Lesser misconduct may result in public censure or private reprimand.
The EPA did not return a request for comment as of publication.