AG Hunter: National watchdog has no business suing him for public records

A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit isn't entitled to sue Attorney General Mike Hunter for records related to the Tar Creek Superfund site because it isn't registered to do business in Oklahoma, the AG's Office contends in court records.

Under Hunter’s reasoning, no newspaper or other news organization based outside Oklahoma could sue here for public records unless the company had registered to do business here.

A hearing on Hunter's argument to dismiss the Campaign for Accountability's two lawsuits is scheduled for Friday morning before Oklahoma County Judge Patricia Parrish.

In February, she rejected Hunter's first attempt to throw out the watchdog group's lawsuit seeking public access to an audit of the community-led trust created to help residents move from the contaminated towns of Picher and Cardin in northeast Oklahoma.

Hunter unexpectedly released the audit and supporting documents on April 9. The previous day was the deadline for prosecuting criminal acts alleged in the audit.

On April 10, the Campaign for Accountability sued Hunter seeking copies of communications between former Attorney General Scott Pruitt and his staff and U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe and his staff regarding the Tar Creek Superfund site. The watchdog group had requested those records on Dec. 11.

In Hunter's motions to dismiss both lawsuits, he argues that the watchdog group isn't entitled to sue because Oklahoma statutes:

  1. Require out-of-state corporations, including nonprofits, to file with the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office before doing business in the state (Okla. Stat. tit. 18, § 1130(B)); and
  2. Prohibit those that don't register from filing lawsuits in Oklahoma that arise from their business (Okla. Stat. 18, § 1137(A)).

The Campaign for Accountability didn't register in Oklahoma, according to Hunter's motions. He also emphasizes that the nonpartisan organization's website states it "uses research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life."

In other words, Hunter argues, the group's "'business' involves the making of open records requests to government entities, the litigation of access to public records, and the publication of articles relating to those subjects."

However, the Campaign for Accountability's open records lawsuits don't seem to be the first by an organization not registered to do business in Oklahoma.

The Center for Media and Democracy successfully sued the AG's Office in early 2017 for thousands of emails and other documents. The Wisconsin-based nonpartisan, nonprofit media watchdog uses "public information requests and lawsuits" to investigate the "influence of corporations in American democracy." Its website notes that when necessary, the group litigates to defend the public's right to know "and ensure those in power follow the law."

A search Thursday of the Oklahoma Secretary of State's online databases of corporations and charitable organizations didn't pull up registration records for the Center for Media and Democracy.

Hunter was appointed attorney general in February 2017 after Pruitt left to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Hunter faces Gentner Drummond and Angela Bonilla in the Republican primary on June 26. The GOP nominee will face Democrat Mark Myles in the general election Nov. 6.


Joey Senat, Ph.D. Associate Professor OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications Mass Communication Law in Oklahoma

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, its board of directors or the commentator’s employer. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.