Humane Society Sues Oklahoma AG

January 26, 2015       Mark Hrywna      

The Oklahoma Attorney General calls it a review of fundraising and solicitation practices. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) essentially sees it as a political attack.

The HSUS filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Oklahoma County, alleging that the attorney general has improperly sought privileged documents from the organization and asked the court for a declaration and an injunction.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt sent requests for information in late February 2014 regarding HSUS’ fundraising practices in Oklahoma, to which the charity said it responded to in full by March. In July, Pruitt issued a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) asking for what HSUS called “far more information about governance and structure in general, including burdensome details wholly unrelated to Oklahoma fundraising,” such as meeting notices and employee handbooks. HSUS said it responded in late July and August but claimed privilege for what the nonprofit called a “small minority” of documents.

HSUS cited the Oklahoma Solicitation of Charitable Contributions Act, which explicitly exempts privileged documents from disclosure, saying that Pruitt demanded the documents despite the privilege exemption, and declined to sign a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for receiving them.

The lawsuit also alleges that Pruitt violated state law by turning what is supposed to be a confidential, official proceeding into a publicly-waged political event, and making remarks that prejudge the result. Pruitt has asked The HSUS for additional confidential, proprietary information including attorney-client communications and future plans but the Attorney General’s Office is “skeptical of the assertion of attorney-client privilege.”

The Attorney General’s Office is concerned that HSUS solicitations and advertisements “give donors the impression that the funds donated are used in connection with local area shelters.” Pruitt suggests that funds “may go to “high-powered lobbying and special interest campaigns that are determined to shape state and federal legislation that would harm farmers, ranchers and other Oklahomans.”

HSUS has countered that Pruitt, a Republican, made “incendiary, untrue remarks” through 2014 to members of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau – a political adversary of the nonprofit that opposed a successful anti-cockfighting ballot initiative in 2002 as well as a state question “that would have made it impossible to qualify ballot initiatives to promote animal welfare measures.” It also claims the AG’s office has not received any complaints about possible deceptive fundraising practices. HSUS is being represented by W.A. “Drew” Edmondson, a Democrat and former four-term Oklahoma attorney general.

“This fishing expedition by Attorney General Pruitt is unprecedented in our history,” HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said. “No state attorney general has ever behaved in this manner. Oklahomans should not tolerate this heavy hand of government trying to suppress the work of charitable organizations based on pure politics,” he said.

“It’s unclear to me why the HSUS would file a lawsuit rather than help us answer concerns that their solicitations in Oklahoma may be misleading,” Julie Bays, Chief of the Public Protection Unit said via a statement. “Instead of respecting the donations of generous Oklahomans by providing clarity that such donations were used for the purposes represented in solicitations, the HSUS has decided to sue the Attorney General’s Office and wage a duplicitous war of misinformation against the people of Oklahoma,” she said.

In a Jan. 8 letter to Edmondson, Bays said the office is “skeptical of HSUS’ assertion of attorney-client privilege. The information leading up to these redactions leads us to believe that some of the redacted information involves business inquires and advice, rather than legal advice that the privilege protects,” she said.

HSUS views the AG’s inquiry as a political attack. “Religious leaders, pro-life groups, and others with a values-based view of the world should be outraged by the misuse of the Attorney General’s office to mount a political attack on a charitable organization because of that group’s mission and beliefs,” said Cynthia Armstrong, HSUS Oklahoma state director. “It’s not the role of the government to decide whose voice should be heard. Pruitt is clearly taking this action because his political allies don’t like our work cracking down on cockfighting, puppy mills, and intensive confinement of animals on factory farms,” she said.