Watchdog group sues Trump EPA nominee Scott Pruitt to disclose links to energy companies

WASHINGTON, Feb 7 (Reuters) - A media watchdog group is suing to force U.S. President Donald Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency to release records detailing his communications with energy companies ahead of a Senate vote to confirm his nomination.

The Center for Media and Democracy will file a lawsuit on Tuesday in an Oklahoma court against Scott Pruitt, who is the state's attorney general as well as Trump's nominee to become the top U.S. environmental regulator.

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The group wants to force Pruitt to respond to nine open-records requests dating to January 2015 to publish emails between his office and energy companies. Pruitt's office has received more than four dozen similar requests from other groups.

The lawsuit accuses Pruitt of violating the state's Open Records Act by failing to release those emails to the public.

"His inaction denies the public 'prompt and reasonable' access to public documents and violates Oklahoma's Open Records Act," said Robert Nelon, a first amendment lawyer with Hall Estill, who is representing the Center for Media and Democracy along with the American Civil Liberties Union.

SEE ALSO: Trump labor secretary pick Andrew Pudzer admits to employing undocumented immigrant

The media watchdog's first request sought access to more than 3,000 emails. Pruitt's office has not told the group how many records it has identified for the other eight requests it has pending.

"We are doing this because these emails should be released so that people can properly vet his record before the Senate votes to confirm him," said Nick Surgey, the center's director of research.

Pruitt, 48, sued the agency he intends to run 14 times on behalf of Oklahoma to weaken or gut its key regulations, earning him strong support from energy companies and Republican lawmakers who have accused the Obama administration's EPA of regulatory overreach.

On Thursday, the Senate environment committee approved Pruitt despite a boycott of his nomination by the panel's Democratic members. The full Senate, which is under Republican control, is expected to confirm him but has not set a date for the vote.

The lawsuit submitted on Tuesday calls on the court to stop Pruitt from denying access to requested public records and to prevent his office from destroying any documents relevant to the requests.

Surgey said Pruitt was seemingly unapologetic during the confirmation hearings about his "strong relationships with Oklahoma's oil and gas companies" and that the public should be aware his ties to the types of companies he would need to regulate as EPA administrator.

Pruitt's office was not immediately available for comment.

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a member of the Senate panel that held Pruitt's hearing, accused the nominee of stonewalling the request for information about his relationships with industry.

"I hope this lawsuit forces Attorney General Pruitt to stop the cover-up and disclose these emails immediately so the American people know what conflicts of interest this nominee has," Whitehouse said in a statement to Reuters. (Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)

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