Young Trump judge faces charges of conflict of interest and corporate favoritism

WASHINGTON — On Nov. 17, 2017, President Trump added five names to the list of potential Supreme Court nominations his administration might make. One of those names would become universally known the following summer: Brett Kavanaugh, the beer-loving jurist who managed to gain confirmation to the high court despite allegations of sexual misconduct and broader concerns about his honesty and temperament.

Patrick R. Wyrick, another of the five newcomers to the Supreme Court list, remains virtually unknown. Nominated for the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, Wyrick could soon join the dozens of activist judges remaking the federal government, and American society, according to the dictates of the conservative movement. That movement has seen Trump’s remaking of the federal judiciary as perhaps his signature achievement. (Trump’s nominations have hewn closely to recommendations from the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society.) During the 115th Congress, which marked the first two years of his presidency, Trump successfully appointed 85 judges to the federal bench, including two to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Patrick Wyrick, then Oklahoma state solicitor general, in 2011. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Patrick Wyrick, then-Oklahoma state solicitor general, in 2011. (Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Wyrick turned 38 in March. He would be the second-youngest Trump judge, after 37-year-old Allison Jones Rushing, who was confirmed in March. He has been endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Trump ally Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and faces a procedural vote on Tuesday ahead of a confirmation vote by the full Senate, which will presumably come shortly thereafter.

Yet as Wyrick’s confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate nears, critics say he should be disqualified because he has failed to disclose that while suing the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act as Oklahoma’s solicitor general, he was also involved in his wife’s health care company. New information released by Earthjustice, the environmental activist group that has been roundly critical of the Trump administration, suggests that during his confirmation proceedings in 2018, Wyrick attempted to hide the extent of his relationship to Midtown Physical Therapy Central, the company run by his wife, Jamie, an orthopedic rehabilitation specialist.

The allegations come in an eight-page letter Earthjustice has sent to members of the U.S. Senate. It is an updated version of the letter Earthjustice sent to members of the Judiciary Committee last summer. (Wyrick was nominated before the 115th Congress, but the session ended before he could be confirmed by the full Senate.) The letter also reprises long-standing allegations that Wyrick — a close associate of former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt — improperly collaborated with the oil and gas industry in blocking the Obama administration’s environmental regulations.

The letter expresses “deep substantive and ethical concerns with Mr. Wyrick’s fitness to serve as a federal judge” and concludes by calling Wyrick a “barnstorming, crusading ideologue” with a “deep personal hostility” to government.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the proposed budget estimates and justification for FY2019 for the Environmental Protection Agency on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago - HP1EE5G15QD3I
Scott Pruitt, pictured last May, was Oklahoma's attorney general for almost all of Wyrick's time as the state's solicitor general, between 2011 and 2017. (Photo: Al Drago/Reuters)

Between 2011 and 2017, Wyrick served as the solicitor general of Oklahoma, meaning that he was the top lawyer in the Oklahoma attorney general’s office. That attorney general, for almost all of Wyrick’s time as solicitor general, was Pruitt, who sued the Obama administration 14 times over environmental regulations. He was made administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency by President-elect Trump, only to lose that job in the summer of 2018 because of an ever-expanding list of ethical transgressions.

Pruitt was also an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, filing suit against the federal government in 2012, a case known as Pruitt v. Burwell. Two years later, as that court case was ongoing, a filing revealed Wyrick was a “registered agent” for “B2LPT, LLC,” a physical therapy practice in which Jamie Wyrick currently has an $800,000 stake. A registered agent, according to Oklahoma statute, is “a person or company who agrees to accept legal mail” and “may serve as a general point of contact for receiving business and tax notices, payment reminders, and other documents.”

The letter from Earthjustice argues that Wyrick should have recused himself from Pruitt v. Burwell because ties to a health care-related business presented a conflict of interest. As Coby Dolan, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, explained to Yahoo News, “Patrick Wyrick misleading the Senate Judiciary Committee about his role in his wife’s business is significant because it begs the question: What else is he hiding from the Senate?”

Wyrick was appointed a justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2017, and Trump nominated him for a federal judgeship the following year. By that time, he was on the list of Supreme Court nominees, which meant his nomination was bound to attract acute scrutiny. During his nomination hearing, he came under sharp attack from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who sent follow-up questions.

One written question from Whitehouse went as follows: “What has your role in B2LPT, LLC been up to the present?”

“Other than my attempts to be a supportive spouse, I have no role in that business,” Wyrick answered in part.

In another question, Whitehouse wondered why Wyrick had not disclosed the existence of B2LPT on his official application for the Oklahoma judicial vacancy.

Wyrick replied that he thought the form was “asking about my business affiliations and occupations, not those of my wife.”

President Donald Trump walks after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn last weekend. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
In November 2017, President Trump, seen here after stepping off Marine One on the South Lawn last weekend, added Wyrick to the list of potential Supreme Court nominations his administration might make. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

But the revelation that Wyrick was a “registered agent” for B2LPT means that he not only had a potential conflict of interest in Oklahoma, but that he was not truthful in his written testimony to the U.S. Senate, a potentially disqualifying development.

Yahoo News sent emails to addresses believed to be associated with Wyrick, but received no response. The White House also did not respond to a list of questions about Wyrick’s record.

Concerns about Wyrick also extend to his description of dealing with the oil and gas industry, of which Pruitt was a close ally. As the attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the Environmental Protection Agency — which he would come to lead under Trump — a total of 14 times in an attempt to weaken or dismantle regulations disliked by energy companies, which in part fueled Pruitt’s political ascent.

Wyrick appears to have helped in these efforts. In crafting Pruitt’s challenges to the EPA, Wyrick took frequent instruction from Bill Whitsitt, an executive at Oklahoma-based oil and gas company Devon Energy, with whom he interacted frequently over email, according to documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. (The New York Times previously reported on Pruitt’s coordination with Devon, but did not mention Wyrick’s role in the effort.)

During his 2018 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wyrick asserted that he did not hold financial interests in Devon and other energy companies that had business before the Oklahoma attorney general’s office. However, according to financial disclosures Wyrick submitted to the Senate, he until fairly recently owned stock in Devon and another energy company in Oklahoma, Chesapeake.

In a statement to Yahoo News, Whitehouse blasted Wyrick for his record. “He built his career serving as a go-between for fossil fuel interests and disgraced polluter errand boy Scott Pruitt when he served in Oklahoma government. He gave false statements before the Supreme Court — not a small foul for any lawyer. He failed to disclose his role in his wife’s health care venture after telling me — under oath — he had nothing to do with it,” he wrote. “... Mr. Wyrick shouldn’t be anywhere near confirmation to the federal bench,” Whitehouse concluded.

Whether any of this can derail Wyrick’s nomination remains to be seen. The Senate is in Republican control, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he is pursuing judicial nominations with renewed vigor. That means that, within days, Wyrick could become a federal judge for life.

“The public deserves a federal judge that has high integrity and can rule fairly and impartially,” Dolan of Earthjustice says. “Patrick Wyrick does not meet that test.”

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