EPA head Scott Pruitt deemed open records Black Hole while he served as Okla. attorney general

OKLAHOMA CITY – A city clerk, a college professor and a Norman attorney received awards Friday for their contributions to openness in government and for promoting the free flow of information in Oklahoma. Freedom of Information Oklahoma presented its Marian Opala First Amendment Award to Attorney David McCullough, the Ben Blackstock Award to Dr. Joey Senat of Oklahoma State University, and the Sunshine Award to Frances Kersey, city clerk for the City of Oklahoma City.

The Black Hole recognition went to former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, now President Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The awards were presented as part of FOI Oklahoma’s celebration of Sunshine Week.

McCullough’s award recognizes individuals who have promoted education about or protection of the individual rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is named in honor of the late Marian P. Opala, the former Polish freedom fighter who served 32 years on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

McCullough of the Norman law firm of Doerner Saunders Daniel & Anderson is a founding member of FOI Oklahoma and has worked with the organization to promote citizen access to government information for nearly 30 years.

In 1996, he received the Society of Professional Journalists First Amendment Award.

McCullough wrote the Oklahoma Open Government Guide as part of a 50-state project by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

He recently has been in the news as the attorney representing the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters in its lawsuit against the city of Norman and the Cleveland County District Attorney’s office. The broadcasters sued under to obtain the videotape of OU running back Joe Mixon punching an OU coed and breaking four of her facial bones.

McCullough received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma in 1977 and spent five years as a newspaper reporter and editor. He graduated from OU College of Law in 1984.

He also is recognized nationally for his representation for more than 25 years of Native American Indian tribes.

There’s little doubt the go-to person for FOI questions is Joey Senat, a past president of FOI Oklahoma and a past recipient of its Opala Award. Senat’s openness advocacy is well known locally and nationally.

Since joining the OSU faculty in 1998, he has taken more than 2,000 questions – typically on FOI issues – from journalists, attorneys, the general public and government officials. These usually come from people denied a government record or concerned about a public body’s agenda.

They want to know if the reason for denial is justified or if the agenda item or public body’s action violated state law. The information provided by Senat has been used to persuade government officials to release records and public bodies to redo actions from previous meetings.

The majority of those seeking help are from Oklahoma. But there have been many from out of state, including the BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN, The Atlantic, Thomson Reuters, the Columbia Journalism Review.

Because of his persistence, Oklahoma was ahead of many other states in confirming the public’s right to know what public business is being conducted on government officials’ private electronic devices.

The California Supreme Court quoted from an academic article by Senat in ruling recently that private emails by government officials in that state are a public record when public business is conducted.

The Blackstock Award recognizes a member of the public who has contributed to openness in government. It is named for Ben Blackstock, the long-time head of the Oklahoma Press Association.

Kersey received the Sunshine Award – which goes to a government official or body -- for working to see that records requests by the public are processed timely and efficiently.

She processes about 300 open records requests each month, and that number increases by about 20 percent each year.

Kersey started work with the city in 1981 and was promoted to city clerk in 2002. She supervises a staff of seven employees, and they work together to maintain city records.

Her office works to organize city elections and is responsible for the city’s bidding, agenda management and information programs.

Pruitt received the Black Hole designation for violating the state’s Open Records Act by improperly withholding public records.

Pruitt was confirmed as Donald Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency shortly after thousands of AG office emails were made available following an order of Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons in response to a suit filed by the Center for Media and Democracy.

Pruitt had a chilling impact on governmental openness, as documented in the judge’s ruling. The center made its initial request to review Pruitt’s email records in early 2015.

``Prompt and reasonable access to those records has not been given and the Open Records Act is being frustrated in policy and purpose,” the judge said, after reciting portions of the transparency law.

The attorney general serves as the chief legal and law enforcement officer of the state and is responsible for providing legal advice to other departments and agencies. The AG also is responsible for the prosecution of offenses to state law and serves as an advocate for the basic legal rights of Oklahoma residents.

“There is no valid legal justification for the emails we received …  not being released prior to Pruitt’s confirmation vote (for the EPA) other than to evade public scrutiny,” said Art Pearson, general counsel for the CMD.

The emails show Pruitt's deep ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Additional documents have been submitted to Timmons for review. A number of other documents were redacted, and CMD wants the court to review those as well. The attorney general’s office has fought the release of those records, too. It appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court for a stay.

This was the 10th year for the awards by FOI Oklahoma, a statewide organization that for 27 years has promoted education of the First Amendment and openness in government.

Last year’s recipients were Karen Holp, manager of KGOU radio in Norman, the Opala Award; State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones, the Sunshine Award, and Ziva Branstetter of Tulsa, the Blackstock Award. The Black Hole designation went to the City of Norman for its refusal to comply with open records laws in not making public the Joe Mixon tape.

The organization counts among its members journalists, librarians, government officials and private individuals. FOI Oklahoma is a national leader in training educators to teach the First Amendment in Oklahoma classrooms. It sponsors an annual First Amendment Congress for high school students.