Poultry firm employees donate to GOP AG candidate

Thursday, October 28, 2010

— State records show that employees from several Arkansas poultry companies sued by Oklahoma over environmental pollution have given thousands of dollars to the Republican candidate for attorney general, which his opponent said Thursday creates a conflict of interest.

Republican Scott Pruitt has received at least $15,000 from employees of firms named in the pending lawsuit, according to campaign finance records filed by candidates with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. The lawsuit, filed by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office in 2005, alleges the companies polluted a watershed that straddles both states.

Democratic candidate Jim Priest said such contributions create an appearance of impropriety in the race. Priest said he has declined contributions from several people with ties to the poultry industry.

“I think it puts the attorney general in a conflict of interest,” Priest said during a news conference at the state Capitol. “It gives the appearance of improper conduct. It raises suspicions in the minds of the public.”

Pruitt’s campaign manager, Tyler Laughlin, called the claims “a desperate attempt by a losing campaign.”

Priest said more than half of his $516,000 in campaign contributions came from Oklahoma attorneys.

“Lawyers understand that this is a hiring decision,” Priest said. “You don’t need a politician in that office. You need a qualified lawyer.”

Priest, a longtime Oklahoma City attorney, has bashed Pruitt’s lack of trial and courtroom experience. Pruitt, a former state senator, has made responding to what he calls “the overreach of Washington” — most notably the federal health care law — the centerpiece of his campaign.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who filed the lawsuit against the Arkansas poultry industry, decided not to seek re-election so he could challenge Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, who received contributions from the poultry industry. Edmondson lost to Askins by less than 1 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.

“One thing we consider, and our employees likely consider in deciding who to support, is which candidate is backed by the plaintiffs lawyers who continue to threaten our business with endless litigation,” said Gary Mickelson, spokesman for Tyson Foods Inc., one of the companies named in Oklahoma’s lawsuit.

“In this race, Mr. Priest is clearly the plaintiffs lawyers’ candidate. Consequently, it’s no surprise to us that some of our employees chose to contribute money to his opponent,” Mickelson said.

Oklahoma’s lawsuit accuses the poultry industry of polluting the Illinois River watershed with tons of bird manure. It claims runoff from land that’s been covered with chicken waste for decades contaminated the watershed.

The lawsuit targeted companies that buy birds from the 1,800 poultry houses along the million-acre watershed, which straddles Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The industry, including giants Tyson and Cargill Inc., countered that farmers, area businesses and others were to blame for the pollution.

A federal judge has yet to rule on the lawsuit.