Pruitt’s Visit to North Dakota: Secrecy, Potential Violations, and Missed Opportunities

On Tuesday, we broke the story that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt would be holding two events on Wednesday in North Dakota but the public and the press would be barred from both. That story has caught a lot of attention both locally and nationally. We need to recap what transpired over the last 24 hours.

First, it is interesting to note, Senator John Hoeven, Congressman Kevin Cramer, and Governor Doug Burgum all put out notices claiming credit for getting Pruitt to come to North Dakota. Now, all of them are deferring responsibility from prohibiting access to the public and the press. After public outrage, all three offices are pointing the blame of secrecy onto Pruitt himself.

Press Access

Let’s look at the timeline of how the press discovered they were booted from access. According to reporter Andrew Haffner of the Grand Forks Herald, “His [Pruitt] visits were hosted by Burgum’s office, which released notice to the press last week. In the initial media advisory, press was invited to attend the last 15 minutes of both roundtables. By Tuesday, that invitation had been rescinded.” Tuesday? The day before the meetings? That is interesting. The whole premise that started my original story (coincidentally published on Tuesday) was Congressman Kevin Cramer’s schedule. That schedule said the meetings were closed to the press and was published on Sunday. Who in the planning process knew what and when? Cramer’s office seemed to know press wasn’t allowed on Sunday. Hoeven and Burgum didn’t know about it until Tuesday? I’m not buying it.

Haffner attempted to attend the Grand Forks meeting and was asked to leave the grounds by a representative of Pruitt’s before he arrived. A UND police officer showed up to enforce those demands. This is highly unusual seeing that UND is a public university and Haffner, a reporter, was simply attempting to do his job. It became a story because of how the administration handled the situation.

The last thing I’ll say about press access focuses squarely on Kevin Cramer. Cramer has been an outspoken critic of the press claiming they have an “unhealthy obsession with Russia” and they don’t cover what the Trump administration is accomplishing. Well Congressman, it is tough for the press to cover what the administration is doing when they prohibit access and coverage. He cannot have it both ways.

Open Meeting Violation?

Following the morning meeting in Fargo, KFGO reporter Jim Monk spoke with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Monk, who was barred from the meeting, asked Stenehjem whether the closed meeting he was just exiting violated North Dakota’s open meeting laws. Two of the three members of the Industrial Commission, Governor Burgum and Attorney General Stenehjem, were in attendance which constitutes a quorum and were talking about state policy. Stenehjem immediately denied it was a violation. I’m willing to guess someone will ask for an official opinion based on law.

However, according to those in attendance at the Grand Forks meeting later in the day, Stenehjem was not in attendance. The reason behind his absence was given by Governor Burgum who said without Stenehjem they could talk about energy policy without a quorum. Apparently, Monk’s question in Fargo was credible enough for them not to attempt it again.

There really was a simple way of avoiding this situation. They could have opened the meeting up to the public. Instead, the Attorney General was forced to join the press and the public outside of the meeting to maintain their desired secrecy without the potential of violating state law.

Partisan Politics

On Tuesday I warned, “Instead of having reporters share an independent perspective of the topics discussed, the general public will likely be fed talking points by politicians.” Taking that sentiment a step further in an interview with the Huffington Post I said, “I’m afraid this is just going to be used as a partisan political event.” Though not explicitly displayed by every politician in attendance, Congressman Kevin Cramer unsurprisingly hit that low bar. In a prepared press release, Cramer said, “We in Congress need to enact a permanent fix to WOTUS to make sure this harmful rule doesn’t become a political game of ping-pong, where the rule can simply be re-proposed every time we have a Democrat in the White House.”

Here is the thing, most North Dakota Democrats are also opposed to the WOTUS rules. I would agree Congress should enact a permanent fix but not merely based on partisanship. The 2015 policy is unworkable for our family farmers. This is a non-partisan issue locally which is why the WOTUS meeting in Fargo was described to me as “friendly” and “non-controversial.” Yet, that doesn’t stop Republican politicians in the North Dakota from continuously trying to hit local Democrats over the head with the EPA. It’s about electoral politics. Expect Cramer to use this approach when he runs for reelection in 2018.

As it turns out, Democratic legislators weren’t exactly welcomed to these secret meetings with open arms initially. They had to negotiate a spot at the table. House Minority Leader Corey Mock confirmed that he spoke to the Governor’s office to ensure Democrats were included in the round table, but reiterated he did not know when others were invited or how participants were selected. To the Governor’s credit, they eventually allowed them a seat in an attempt to remove partisan perceptions.

Improvements Needed

This was a blown opportunity. It is an honor for an Administrator of a federal agency to visit your state regardless of political leanings. The public, the press, family farmers, and energy workers should have had access to Pruitt. How it was handled by politicians and their staff both locally and nationally is not normal nor ideal. In no way do I mean this as a cheap shot, but the Governor and his staff are new to this. That is just a fact. Burgum himself takes it as a point of pride that he is new to public office and comes from the business world. Expectations from private business to public service are different. I suspect they’ll learn from this experience.

If in fact, Pruitt is the one who demanded this level of secrecy, he should reevaluate whether he is capable of this job. The public’s work should be done publicly. It is his duty to be available to them. If he is too afraid to face the public he serves then he isn’t fit for office. The question remains, why the secrecy?

Tyler Axness
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