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Pruitt letter prickles Oklahoma governor's office

Input from Attorney General Scott Pruitt before 2012 health care decisions called “self serving and political” by Gov. Mary Fallin's chief of staff.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD zcampfield@opubco.com Modified: April 14, 2013 at 11:29 pm •  Published: April 15, 2013

Gov. Mary Fallin's office already was avalanched with calls and correspondence urging her to push back against the new federal health care law when she received an important one from the state's top prosecutor.

Attorney General Scott Pruitt offered no opinion about the Affordable Care Act in his letter; instead, he told the governor that his lawsuit against the federal government could be harmed if she complied with it.

“The lawsuit is predicated … on the fact that the State is not implementing a state-established exchange,” Pruitt wrote, referring to a component of the act that calls for insurance policies to be sold to consumers via an online market. “If the State does implement an exchange, I will have to dismiss the lawsuit.”

Within a few hours Fallin's chief of staff, Denise Northrup, sent an email to then-Secretary of State Glen Coffee, calling Pruitt's letter “self serving and political.” In his response, Coffee said he agreed.

Pruitt's office declined to release the letter to The Oklahoman because the lawsuit is still pending, but it was included as an attachment in health care emails released by Fallin's office in March.

About the lawsuit

In the letter, dated Nov. 16, 2012 — three days before Fallin announced she would decline a state-based exchange — Pruitt offered the governor one last heavy dish of food for thought.

“Please inform me as soon as your decision is made, so that I can take appropriate action with regard to the lawsuit,” he wrote.

Pruitt wrote that his lawsuit — filed two months prior in federal court — maintains the U.S. Internal Revenue Service would have no authority to collect tax penalties applied to individuals and businesses that fail to purchase or provide health insurance coverage in states that participate in a federal insurance exchange.

“In short, if successful, the State's lawsuit will exempt employers in Oklahoma from the employer mandate, and will prevent thousands of Oklahomans from being subject to the individual mandate,” Pruitt wrote.

Northrup's response was typical of her reactions to suggestions and advice from other important elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, as Fallin moved closer to making one of the most important decisions of her governorship.

‘The right decision'

Northrup declined to comment on the Pruitt letter and her reaction, but Coffee said the comments weren't meant as complaints.

“He obviously has a specific interest in succeeding in that lawsuit and wants to protect it,” Coffee said of Pruitt. “(If he) is successful in his lawsuit it could overturn Obamacare, which is a policy goal of many Oklahomans, many members of the Legislature and the governor.”

The governor's spokesman, Alex Weintz, said Northrup's frustration reflects the office's strategy of keeping Fallin from being “boxed in by outside forces.”

“Our job as a staff, when we have a big policy decision like this, is to present all the relevant facts to the governor and protect the ability of the governor to make the right decision for the state,” Weintz said. “There were hundreds if not thousands of voices all with their own opinions and agendas trying to get the governor to do something and sometimes as staff, you know, we got prickly about that.”

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