Before Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, became the swampiest creature in the D.C. bog, he was the attorney general for Oklahoma and a close pal of the oil and gas industry there.
So in 2014, when he was trying to get the EPA’s inspector general to back off on fracking — the controversial practice of injecting liquid into the ground to break loose hard-to-get pockets of oil and gas — Pruitt was fishing around for friendly supporters in other states to sign onto a complaint letter.
He found one in Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who, as my colleague Taylor Anderson reported last week, ignored the concerns expressed by environmental officials in Utah and jumped on board with Pruitt.
Bridget Romano, then Reyes’ solicitor general, called the Pruitt letter “political, plain and simple,” and relayed the opinion of Utah environmental officials who questioned “why the AGs would object to the EPA conducting an investigation respecting an area under its purview.”
It didn’t matter. Reyes was the new kid on the block, in office for just a few months, and this was a chance to prove to his fellow Republican attorneys general that he was a team player. Not only that, it was a chance for Reyes, who has bigger political ambitions, to rack up points that might help him down the road.
What did Reyes get for his trouble? A few months after he ignored the concerns and joined the letter, he received $50,000 from the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA). Then he got $150,000 the following year. And $85,000 the year after that.
And let’s keep in mind what the Republican Attorneys General Association really is. It’s essentially a giant washing machine where huge donations from the National Rifle Association and tobacco companies, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers, from big pharmaceutical companies and energy companies are all sloshed around and then disbursed to candidates.
The result is that nobody has any idea who is actually giving money to the states’ top law enforcement officers. The attorneys general who get the money do, however, because they rub elbows with corporate donors at RAGA meetings. (Democrats, by the way, play the same game. But, as is generally the case, are not nearly as effective.)
We’ve seen this kind of ambition driving decision making in the attorney general’s office, of course. Repeatedly, as it turns out.
We saw then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, eager to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, solicit hundreds of thousands of dollars from scam artists his office should have been prosecuting, selling out consumers in the process.
We saw his successor, John Swallow, resign after — as a House investigation later determined — he put a veritable “For Sale” sign on the office.
Technically, both men were not guilty from a criminal standpoint, but they sold out the people who elected them to promote their own self-interest.
What Reyes has done didn’t rise to that level, certainly. But he was supposed to be different. He ran on a promise to restore integrity to the office and fulfill his duties with fidelity.
What these documents — a group of several dozen emails obtained by the progressive watchdog group, Center for Media and Democracy — show is that, when ambition reared its ugly head, Reyes put political calculations ahead of the interests of the agency heads his office is supposed to represent.
We’ve seen his ambition manifest itself before. Last year, when he was actively seeking an appointment from President Donald Trump to head the Federal Trade Commission, I wrote that companies that had drawn scrutiny from the FTC or were under the commission’s purview donated $100,000 to Reyes’ political campaign.
And we’ve seen the attorney general eager to get in front of cameras to tout his work on combating sex trafficking. Let’s be clear: Sex trafficking is bad. But how, exactly, does going to Central America with a private group on a shady sting, or heading to the Sundance Film Festival in a black beanie for supposed undercover work really fall into the attorney general’s duties?
On the heels of the Shurtleff-Swallow scandal, Sen. Todd Weiler floated a proposal to amend Utah’s Constitution to make the office an appointed position, rather than an elected one. The idea never got traction, but it’s time to revisit it.
Because what we’ve seen repeatedly over the years is the ambition of the officeholder keeps interfering with the job. So let’s re-examine changing the dynamic, and return the office to one focused on public service and not a stepping stone to the next big thing.