WatchDog Group Sues for Records as Pruitt Confirmation Vote Nears & More

February 14, 2017

 

WatchDog: Suit Over Pruitt Records, Disappearing Animal Database, Standing Rock Reporter Arrest & More

By Joseph A. Davis, WatchDog TipSheet Editor

1. WatchDog Group Sues for Records as Pruitt Confirmation Vote Nears

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt testifying before a congressional committee.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt testifying before a congressional committee (date unknown). PHOTO: Oklahoma Office of Attorney General

The public still doesn’t know everything about Scott Pruitt’s financial and political ties to energy companies — even as a Senate floor vote on his nomination to be administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency looms.

A watchdog group filed suit in Oklahoma Feb. 7 seeking records under Oklahoma’s open records law, specifically emails between Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt and energy industry companies and representatives. The nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy had sought those records under seven different open-records requests beginning in January 2015.

CMD says the Oklahoma attorney general’s office has not produced the records. Asking for an expedited hearing, CMD got an initial court date of Feb. 16. The case is before Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons. CMD is being represented by the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Pruitt has agreed to a CMD motion asking him to preserve the contested records.

Republicans pushed Pruitt’s nomination through the Senate Environment Committee by suspending their own rules Feb. 2. But a floor vote on the confirmation has yet to be scheduled.

Environment Committee Democrats had asked for some of the same information from Pruitt following his Jan. 18 hearing. Nominees normally go out of their way to furnish promptly information requested by a committee — but Pruitt told committee Democrats that they could file their own open-records requests if they wanted the information.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, has called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether Pruitt gave false or misleading information to the Senate committee during the confirmation process.

2. Trump FDA Makes Mistreated Animals Vanish — for a While

In a move reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984,” the Agriculture Department made a database tracking animal mistreatment disappear abruptly Feb. 3, 2017.

The collection of online information included inspection reports on the welfare of animals at thousands of research laboratories, zoos, dog breeding facilities and other facilities. Animal welfare groups immediately protested, among them the American Anti-Vivisection Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The incoming Trump administration’s zeal to make information it doesn’t like disappear, however, was matched by a group maintaining a website called “The Memory Hole” (a term borrowed from “1984”). It archives government websites against just such eventualities.

So now, if you want to see the data that was “disappeared” from the website of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, you can find it here. Eat your heart out, Big Brother.

Such archives help counter censorship, but do not stay up to date when the government stops publishing data.

The rescue of Trump-deleted data was hardly the end of the story. On Feb. 9, the Washington Post’s Karin Brulliard, who had broken the original story to the mainstream media world, did another story suggesting a lawsuit over so-called walking horses was one immediate cause of the data disappearance.

Walking horses have a following in shows because of their unusual high-stepping gait. The gait is produced by a number of techniques, one of which, called “soring,” is considered cruel by animal rights activists. A Texas couple who showed walking horses had sued the USDA after the agency cited them for violating horse protection law. One of their claims was that being listed on the USDA site was a violation of their privacy. And privacy was indeed one reason cited by USDA for deep-sixing the data.

There may have been another reason — entirely political. The USDA action, since no Agriculture Secretary had been confirmed at the time, was entirely under the control of the Trump transition team. One transition member, Brian Klippenstein, is a vehement opponent of animal advocacy groups. And the data on the USDA site is a key tool for activists.

Hiding the information from the public, however, seems to have thrust it further into the spotlight of public controversy.

In an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, local SPCA head Robin Starr declared: “USDA is covering up for animal abusers.” Also, the Animal Legal Defense Fund is using the flap to raise money. The fund and other groups are threatening to sue USDA to get the information restored to the web. The Humane Society of the United States is also threatening to sue. It says the USDA is already required to post much of the information publicly by a court order.

The USDA acknowledged in a statement that much of the information can probably be obtained by the public through the Freedom of Information Act. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 requires agencies in effect to post online records that have been requested three or more times.

3. Another Journalist Arrested at Standing Rock — and Released

Jenni Monet, a journalist for the Indian Country Today Media Network, was arrested Feb. 1, 2017, at Cannonball, N.D., while interviewing protesters opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Monet is Native American. Among the groups protesting her arrest was the Native American Journalists Association. Monet was released Feb. 3.

Other journalists have been arrested by local and state authorities in North Dakota while covering pipeline protests. The Society of Environmental Journalists has objected to such infringements of press freedom rights. SEJ has also objected to federal harassment of such journalists at the border.

4. Energy Department Gives Cold Shoulder to Nuclear Whistleblowers

Caught in incoming President Trump’s blanket regulatory freeze was a rule that would have strengthened protections against retaliation for whistleblowers at nuclear cleanup sites. Whistleblowers are often a major source of information for environmental journalists.

Cleaning up the toxic and radioactive mess left by early nuclear weapons development is an ongoing program that will take decades and tens of billions of dollars. Much of the work is done by contractors. When whistleblowers have pointed out conditions that are unsafe for workers and the public, contractors have retaliated.

The rule in question, while finalized, was caught up in the Trump administration’s dragnet targeting all recent rules.

5. EPA Web Data Disappearance Gets Focus from EDGI Rescue Project

Information has already begun disappearing from the website of the U.S. EPA, Climate Central’s Brian Kahn reports.

One reason we know is a unique data-rescue project mounted in recent weeks by a growing collaborative of academics, scientists and others concerned about the political suppression of information.

Even though a new EPA administrator has yet to be confirmed, the Trump transition team has lost no time in adjusting the reality reflected on EPA’s website to fit its own views on things like climate science and policy.

The rescuers call themselves the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, or EDGI. The initiative is archiving (and tracking removal or changes) the existing Obama-era web pages at EPA and other environmental agencies.

EDGI is a volunteer effort that uses a number of already existing web and digital resources, such as the Internet Archive. It is a complex, interdisciplinary network of people and institutions (mostly academic). At last count, the project had over 50 members.

The initiative has already issued a major report (here), but updates are likely to follow frequently. And it is getting a growing amount of media attention. EDGI has also hosted a number of data rescue events in various cities, where researchers actively work to archive threatened information.

Journalists may want to cover EDGI’s work — especially if they cover the disappearance of government information on environment and energy. But journalists (and others) who have information on censored material can also share that information with EDGI. Anyone can also take part directly in data-rescue work. One way to contact EDGI is via this webform, which can be anonymous. You can also reach it via encrypted Protonmail email at EnviroDGI@protonmail.com.

6. Alabama Coal-Ash Protesters Win Right to Free Speech

A landfill company’s effort to silence community political objections to an Alabama coal-ash disposal facility failed Feb. 7, in a landmark victory for environmental justice and the First Amendment right of free speech.

The Georgia-based company Green Group Holdings owns the Arrowhead landfill near Uniontown, Ala. This landfill has for years been receiving coal-ash waste from the catastrophic 2008 failure of an impoundment at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee.

When four Uniontown community members spoke up against the landfill, saying it was harming their poor, largely African-American community, Green Group Holdings sued them for defamation and asked for $30 million in damages.

After the American Civil Liberties Union took up their defense, the residents won a settlement. The company dropped its lawsuit and the residents agreed not to countersue. A court then approved the settlement.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.