By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A media watchdog group filed suit on Tuesday 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 lawsuit was filed in Oklahoma court by the Center for Media and Democracy and accuses Scott Pruitt, who is Oklahoma's attorney general as well as Trump's nominee to become the top U.S. environmental regulator, of violating the state's Open Records Act by failing to release those emails to the public.
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It also seeks to force him 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.
"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, the law firm representing the Center for Media and Democracy along with the American Civil Liberties Union.
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 said it had contacted the Center for Media and Democracy last week to inform the group that "release of their request was imminent."
"The fact that they have now filed suit despite our ongoing communications demonstrates that this is nothing more than political theater," Lincoln Ferguson, the attorney general's press secretary said in a statement. "The office of attorney general remains committed to fulfilling both the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act.”
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)