By Andy Lester
January 27, 2017 at 5:00 am ET
Integrity. Courage. Humility. These are the words that immediately come to mind when I think of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
Fresh out of his confirmation hearing to become director of the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s clear the accusations he is an ideologue, a partisan who can’t work with people on the other side of the aisle, and that he has an agenda to destroy the agency are simply not true.
I first came to know him in 2010, when he was a candidate for, and ultimately elected as, Oklahoma’s attorney general. And what I learned, and now the EPW Senate Committee has heard firsthand, is that he is a man of conviction, a straight shooter, someone who knows how to run a government agency and can work with political allies and political foes alike.
Shortly after the 2010 election, before he took office, Pruitt asked me to meet him over coffee at a local Starbucks, to discuss with me some of his ideas about how to run the attorney general’s office. The office had been run by Democrats for decades, and many in the AG’s office were nervous. Pruitt was aware that, though I am a Republican, I had worked closely with the office for many years, and he wanted to know my thoughts on keeping much of the leadership team assembled by his Democratic predecessors.
What I learned surprised me at the time, though I now know it shouldn’t have. His assessment — the Office of Attorney General had excellent lawyers, and there was no need to make wholesale changes simply because of party politics.
To be sure, Pruitt brought new ideas regarding how the office should be organized. He created the office of solicitor general, a position that had not previously existed in Oklahoma, to focus on the significant appellate practice any state attorney general confronts. He added a chief-of-staff position, which depoliticized the traditional position of first assistant attorney general. And he organized a federalism unit, to represent the interests of Oklahoma within the American constitutional framework.
What Pruitt did with federalism is key to understanding how he will serve as EPA director. Pruitt understands that federalism is one of our federal Constitution’s key protections of individual liberty. Like the separation of powers among the three branches of the federal government, the separation of powers between the federal government and the states is critical to protecting individual freedom. At Starbucks, Pruitt made clear his commitment to individual rights, and thought that as attorney general — the chief lawyer for the state — he would be uniquely positioned to enhance Oklahoman’s individual rights with a federalism unit.
Certainly, this commitment to this vertical separation of powers brought Pruitt into conflict with President Barack Obama’s policies in a number of areas, and has led some to falsely claim Pruitt is out to destroy the EPA. But it simply is not true. Pruitt’s challenges to the current administration’s regulatory schemes have not been about opposition to the conservation and the protection of the environment, but instead about federal overreach and usurpation of powers not belonging to the central government.
The Scott Pruitt I know is someone who knows how to work with political ally and political foe alike. Just as he enhanced Oklahoma’s Office of Attorney General, as EPA director, he will make the organization a better and more effective place, one that will properly fulfill its mission. I have no doubt that Scott Pruitt will be a shining star of the Trump administration.
Andy Lester is a Partner with Spencer Fane and a former United States Magistrate Judge, US District Court, Western District of Oklahoma
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