GRAND FORKS -- Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Friday that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was too private in his Wednesday visit to North Dakota.
Pruitt made three stops in Fargo and the Grand Forks area as part of his ongoing national tour to discuss efforts to roll back and rewrite environmental regulations advanced under President Barack Obama. He spent Wednesday meeting with political representatives and figures from the energy and agriculture industries in invitation-only meetings that were closed to media and other members of the public.
The closed nature of Pruitt’s meetings in the Red River Valley was consistent with his wider touring schedule. But as far as North Dakota was concerned, Hoeven didn’t agree with the administrator’s approach on this leg of the talking tour.
“I think (meetings) should be open,” Hoeven said. “And when my office organizes them, that’s how we do it.”
The level of privacy -- and the security it entailed -- led to a pair of Grand Forks Herald reporters who arrived ahead of Pruitt’s appearance at the UND Energy and Environmental Research facility being ejected from the grounds of the campus building by UND Police.
On Thursday, National Press Club President Jeff Ballou stated on social media that his organization was “looking into” the incident.
Though reporters didn’t have access to the meetings themselves, Hoeven and other attendees said there wasn’t much shared that hasn’t already been heard across the state. North Dakota is no stranger in dealing with EPA regulations and, as part of that, has shared an often strained relationship with the agency.
Given the familiarity of regulatory talking points across the state, Hoeven said his representatives questioned Pruitt’s office about the need to exclude the media from the administrator’s visit.
“I guess I saw no reason not to have it open,” he said.
Alex Finken, a spokesman for Hoeven’s office, said a fellow staff member had called the EPA early Tuesday to “urge them to open the whole meeting.”
By that night, he said, Hoeven’s office heard from the EPA that the meetings would be entirely closed to the public and the media. Pruitt’s visits did include some media contact, and at least three outlets -- including WDAY-TV -- spoke with the administrator outside of meetings.
Two of Pruitt’s events also offered a 15-minute window after the closed meeting in which reporters could speak with Hoeven, as well as Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
An early announcement of Pruitt’s visit from Burgum’s office offered media access to the final 15 minutes of the private meetings in Fargo and Grand Forks. However, that promised access was rescinded at the EPA’s request.
Burgum representative Mike Nowatzki described the change in events as a “misunderstanding” between his office and Pruitt’s. Cramer said he was surprised by early news of the change.
“When I saw that, I said ‘You’d better check to make sure these are open press, because to me (the closed session) seems unlikely,” he said.
Cramer said he didn’t try to advise the EPA on how to conduct its visits. He didn’t necessarily favor total openness of the events to the public, he said, but thought Pruitt might have done well to meet with credentialed media representatives.
Like Hoeven, Cramer said the conversation wasn’t one that would have troubled -- or maybe even interested -- most North Dakotans.
“There certainly would have been no reason to feel threatened by North Dakotans, though I don’t know if that was the issue,” he said. “And certainly North Dakotans (in the meetings) wouldn’t feel threatened by more people around because these are all positions that every farm group has taken publicly already.”
Jack McDonald, an attorney who represents the North Dakota Newspaper Association, took issue with the venues chosen for Pruitt’s meetings. The Fargo appearance was hosted by North Dakota State University and took place on campus in its Memorial Union. The Grand Forks event was held in the EERC, which is a UND-owned building on the university campus.
McDonald questioned why higher ed leaders “allowed the university’s buildings to be used for a private political event and why the public could not at least stand outside.”
Nowatzki objected to the characterization of the meetings as private political events. He said the visits themselves were arranged with the help of EERC staff and the staff of NDSU President Dean Bresciani. EERC officials did not return requests for comment.
NDUS spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said the chancellor doesn’t sign off on university events, even those featuring high-caliber guests like Pruitt. Kennedy didn’t respond to a request for comment, but UND spokesman Peter Johnson echoed Nowatzki by saying the event had been organized by the EERC, not the president. At any rate, Johnson said, it’s not unheard of for UND to host events with restricted access. He added that entry to the EERC itself is restricted by the university more than other buildings because of the fact that the center often deals with proprietary technology. Even beyond the EERC, UND Police Chief Eric Plummer said the university has a campuswide policy backed by a 2009 North Dakota Supreme Court opinion that allows the school to limit public access to publicly owned property.
“The courts have held that institutions can limit public forums based on time, place, and manner. … The policy of the institution is consistent with these rulings,” Plummer said.
He added that he wasn’t at the event itself and would review footage the body camera worn by the officer who spoke with reporters to get additional context.
“I don’t know why (Pruitt’s staff) wouldn’t deal with the media appropriately but, again, I wasn’t there,” he said.