PICHER, Okla. – Amid a lawsuit regarding documents into the cleanup of an Oklahoma Superfund site, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announced that he is releasing those audits.
The Tar Creek Superfund site is one of the most polluted areas on the planet. The water in Tar Creek water runs red with poisonous lead. The chat piles, man-made mountains of toxic bedrock, loom. The land surface is at risk of collapsing into cavernous mine structures below.
It has been a decade since the federal government first declared the area uninhabitable. The towns of Picher and Cardin were both abandoned by their residents.
“It’s the largest Superfund site in Oklahoma,” Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality Executive Director Scott Thompson told News 4 in October.
In 2011, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt requested an audit into suspected unlawful contracting practices by the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Trust at the Superfund site. Pruitt later declined to file charges and ordered that the audit not be released.
In 2015, the auditor’s office asked Pruitt to authorize the release of the audit under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
Pruitt denied the request stating, “Our office is concerned about publication of unsubstantiated criminal allegations against private citizens.” The auditor’s office disputed Pruitt’s rationale, stating that they were not aware of “any unsubstantiated claims” and that “the individuals named in the report are members of a public trust or a contractor whose services were retained as part of this substantive project.”
In November, the watchdog group 'Campaign for Accountability' made an Open Records request of the auditor’s office for the records. In response, the auditor explained that he wanted to release the records, but had been instructed not to do so by the AG’s office. The group then filed a request for the records directly with the AG’s office, which denied the request.
After that, the group filed a lawsuit.
In February, an Oklahoma County judge denied a motion from current Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, who was seeking to dismiss the lawsuit.
Hunter said the release of an investigative audit that didn't lead to criminal charges could "tarnish the reputation of innocent Oklahomans," according to the Associated Press.
Now, it appears that the public will be able to get a look at those documents after all.
Less than a week after the group filed a lawsuit against the EPA, Attorney General Hunter requested approval to release the Lead Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust audits.
"The politicization of this matter by an out of state special interest group is unnecessary and unwarranted," Hunter said. "The facts are clear: The investigative audits looked into the bidding process for the removal of structures and to facilitate the removal of toxic debris, not the buyout and relocation of residents by the federal government. The matter which was the subject of the audits was reviewed by prosecutors in the Attorney General's Office, the EPA under President Barack Obama and reexamined and scrutinized by newly hired, experienced criminal prosecutors in my office. No one in the review chain described above found prosecutable evidence of criminal activity. My office continues to support transparency and remains committed to sharing information with Oklahomans in a manner consistent with the obligation to protect the rights of informants and individuals who are not charged with a crime. We will continue to defend the integrity of the multicounty grand jury process and those who appear before it."
Hunter says since no criminal charges were ever filed, the documents never became public record.
According to the audit, the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust accepted a bid by a company to clean up the area for $599,988.
In the end, the project took almost two more years to complete and ended up costing the trust a total of $3.6 million.
"This report describes various problems with the LICRAT Property Improvement Clearance Project that was bid and awarded through the Department of Central Services (DCS) in December 2010. Although our investigation did not provide direct evidence for a conspiracy against the state, it did provide considerable circumstantial evidence that a conspiracy may have existed," the audit states.
The audit questioned how a "restoration-cleaning company with no heavy equipment and little experience in actual demolition work" would receive a perfect score across the board in the DCS pre-bid qualification process. It also states that the same process attempted "to disqualify all three other demolition companies" by rating them with the lowest rankings almost across-the-board, even though two of the companies provided examples of major and more complex demolition contracts.
Auditors also questioned why "all parties signed a contract omitting the Alternative bid as unnecessary, only to subsequently add the $1.3 million Alternate two months later using 'clerical error' as the ostensible justification for increasing the contract" by nearly 78%. Auditors also say the company charged the trust to haul debris to a Kansas landfill, even though much of the debris was dumped at a non-fee based facility.
"Even though billing documentation reported only approximately 15% of project debris was hauled to the fee-based Kansas landfill, resulting in a 'windfall' to the contractor of over $1 million," the report states.
"We do not believe that the above events can be explained away as poor management or 'clerical error.' We believe the above provides sufficient circumstantial evidence for additional investigation into a potential conspiracy against the state," the report states.
Officials also pointed out the company had a relationship with the man chosen to be the project manager, even though the relationship was not disclosed in the bid affidavit.
"What influence, if any, these issues had on the bid process and its final outcome could not be fully determined or independently corroborated. However, when a vendor is awarded a contract despite crucial relationships not being reported and pertinent information not being disclosed; at a maximum, appearance of favoritism exist," the report states.