The letter to the Environmental Protection Agency from Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma carried a blunt accusation: Federal regulators were grossly overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by energy companies drilling new natural gas wells in his state. But Mr. Pruitt left out one critical point. The three-page letter was written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma's biggest oil and gas companies, and was delivered to him by Devon's chief of lobbying. "Outstanding!" William F. Whitsitt, who at the time directed government relations at the company, said in a note to Mr. Pruitt's office. The attorney general's staff had taken Devon's draft, copied it onto state government stationery with only a few word changes, and sent it to Washington with the attorney general's signature. "The timing of the letter is great, given our meeting this Friday with both E.P.A. and the White House." Mr. Whitsitt then added, "Please pass along Devon's thanks to Attorney General Pruitt."
Americans have probably grown accustomed to thinking about corporate-political alliances in Washington, D.C., with images of well-paid lobbyists working with allied lawmakers to try to, for example, curtail environmental safeguards.
And while those efforts are real and important, to appreciate the more shocking dynamic, one must look outside the D.C. Beltway and focus instead on state officials.
In late October, just a few days before the midterm elections, the New York Times published a lengthy report by Eric Lipton on corporate lobbyists solidifying ties with state attorneys general. It painted an ugly picture -- Republican AGs, elected with financial support from lobbyists, appear to have allowed corporate pressure to influence state investigations.
Over the weekend, Lipton published an even more brutal follow-up, documenting the "unprecedented, secretive alliance " between energy firms, their lobbyists, and Republican state attorneys general that's been cultivated in recent years. The lede highlights a dejecting anecdote:
The piece paints Oklahoma's Pruitt as perhaps the most brazen example, effectively creating a partnership between his office and energy firms, but the larger problem is more widespread.
In 2014, fundraising for Republican state attorneys general candidates reached levels unseen in American history, with donors investing at least $16 million in GOP candidate this year, roughly quadruple the amount donated to Democratic state attorneys general candidates.
The result was predictable: voters have now elected 27 Republican state AGs -- the most in American history.
And now, largely without the public's knowledge, "corporate representatives and attorneys general are coordinating legal strategy and other efforts to fight federal regulations," getting a terrific return on their election investments.
What's more, it's not just environmental protections at stake. The more corporate interests forge strong alliances with Republican attorneys general, the more these state AGs have been eager to pushback against the Affordable Care Act, the administration's regulations of the banking industry, and the president's immigration policies.
Paul Nolette, a political-science professor at Marquette University, told the Times, "It is quite new....The scope, size and tenor of these collaborations is, without question, unprecedented."
Even some Republicans seem taken aback. "When you use a public office, pretty shamelessly, to vouch for a private party with substantial financial interest without the disclosure of the true authorship, that is a dangerous practice," said David Frohnmayer (R), Oregon's former AG. "The puppeteer behind the stage is pulling strings, and you can't see. I don't like that. And when it is exposed, it makes you feel used."
Historically, state attorneys general were expected to operate independently, not serve as hardball partisan operatives. Indeed, state AGs are supposed to maintain a degree of oversight over corporate actors, ensuring they follow the law.
That was then; this is now. In this new dynamic, corporations help elect allied state AGs, many of whom proceed to work with their benefactors, hand in glove, after taking office.