- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) - A Senate Democrat is accusing the head of the Environmental Protection Agency of violating federal law by agreeing to headline a state GOP fundraiser.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse filed an ethics complaint Tuesday against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt over a planned May 5 appearance as the keynote speaker at the Oklahoma Republican Party’s annual gala dinner. The Rhode Island Democrat says that would violate the Hatch Act, which limits the political activities of executive branch employees.

Pruitt served as Oklahoma’s elected attorney general prior to his appointment to the Trump administration. In that post, he frequently raised campaign funds from fossil-fuel corporations and their executives while filing lawsuits challenging EPA rules they opposed.

Sponsorship levels for the upcoming GOP gala range from $2,000 to $5,000. Individual tickets for the dinner cost $100, with special “VIP” access available for another $50. The invitation specifically touts Pruitt’s support for eliminating federal regulations limiting planet-warming carbon emissions.

“You do not want to miss Pruitt at this year’s OKGOP Gala, as he discusses his plans to slash regulations, bring back jobs to Oklahoma, and decrease the size of EPA!” says a flyer for the event sent out by the state party. “Make sure to purchase your Gala tickets so you don’t miss out on Administrator Pruitt’s future plans and how he will continue to Drain the Swamp!”

The EPA sought Wednesday to put some distance between Pruitt and the Oklahoma GOP’s flyer.

“We worked with our ethics office to ensure attendance at this event would comply with rules, and this flyer doesn’t reflect those requirements,” said J.P. Freire, the agency’s spokesman. “We are working to fix this and ensure full compliance with the rules.”

The Hatch Act prohibits executive branch employees from using his or her government position or tittle “while participating in a political activity” or “in connection with fundraising activities.”

In his complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, Whitehouse said the GOP’s invitation promoting Pruitt’s appearance constitutes a “blatant violation” of the Hatch Act.

“The unmistakable impression one receives from the May 5 invitation is that by purchasing a ticket or agreeing to sponsor the OKGOP Gala, the attendee will have special access to a federal employee discussing official actions already taken, and to be taken in the future,” wrote Whitehouse, who is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Financial disclosure forms show natural gas and petroleum producer Devon Energy gave $100,000 to an Oklahoma Republican Party PAC in 2016. Thousands of pages of emails from Pruitt’s tenure as attorney general show he had cozy ties with Devon and other oil and gas firms, as well as advocacy groups funded by energy companies. The emails were released under court order in February after an Oklahoma judge ruled Pruitt had been illegally withholding the correspondence, which is public record under state law.


Associated Press writer Adam Kealoha Causey contributed from Oklahoma City, Okla.


Follow AP environmental writer Michael Biesecker at www.Twitter.com/mbieseck

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