California's attorney general sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday for failing to provide records he contends could show conflicts of interest by Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, is trying to force the agency to release documents he requested in April. He is among state officials nationwide who have vowed to oppose the Trump administration on issues such as climate change and immigration.
Becerra contends Pruitt may have conflicts, particularly because the EPA administrator is now reviewing numerous regulations that he opposed while serving as Oklahoma's attorney general. Pruitt, a Republican, sued or took part in legal actions against the EPA 14 times.
EPA officials did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment.
The suit filed in Washington, D.C., federal court says the EPA failed to respond as required by May and still has not provided the documents despite Becerra sending a notice of violation in June.
"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. Administrator Pruitt's ability to serve as an impartial decision maker merits close examination."
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said it is relatively unusual for state officials to request documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act but there's nothing improper about it. The federal government is required to respond as it would to any other such request, Snyder said.
Pruitt signed a memorandum in May saying he would recuse himself from some cases in which he had sued the EPA while serving as Oklahoma's attorney general.
But Becerra said the memo makes clear that Pruitt would not avoid participating in related matters being reviewed by the agency.
Becerra requested documents in dozens of categories, including those related to Pruitt's ethics agreements and his communications about federal climate change policies.
"Mr. Pruitt's public attacks on the legal and factual justification EPA provided for many rules, including his filing of lawsuits seeking to invalidate them, while Oklahoma attorney general, raise a question regarding his ability to participate in administrative processes and rulemakings concerning these same rules with the impartiality required by federal law," contends the lawsuit.
The suit says the EPA acknowledged receiving Becerra's records request and assigned it a "tracking number" on April 7. The agency said in subsequent letters and telephone calls that it would respond but still has not, the suit says.
Snyder said that Becerra seems to be acting properly even if there is a political motivation behind his records request to President Donald Trump's administration. Suing is legitimate recourse given the EPA has failed to say whether the records are disclosable or not, he said.
"These are two officials, Pruitt and Becerra, who are on opposite sides of the political aisle, so there's a given that it seems obviously there's a political angle here," Snyder said. "But that doesn't mean that Becerra or any other state official is not entitled to request records under FOIA. The government is not allowed to distinguish who it provides records to based on what it thinks the motivations are."