By Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune

Hours before Scott Pruitt resigned under pressure on Thursday, a federal judge chided President Donald Trump’s scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency administrator for failing to enforce conflict-of-interest rules for regulators in Illinois and two other states.

U.S. District Court Judge Christopher R. Cooper ruled that Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general, violated the Clean Air Act by allowing Illinois, Alabama and Mississippi to omit ethical standards from each state’s federally mandated plans to reduce lung-damaging smog and soot pollution.

Other states have laws on the books intended to ensure front-line enforcers of clean air regulations represent the public interest rather than industry priorities. But Illinois has repeatedly failed to ensure similar conflict-of-interest rules apply to top officials at the state EPA, according to documents filed by three environmental groups behind the lawsuit that prompted Cooper’s ruling.

Representatives from the groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Environmental Health and the Sierra Club — said their chief target in Illinois is Alec Messina, who led an industry trade group before Gov. Bruce Rauner named him a top adviser in 2015 and appointed him a year later to lead the state EPA.

“The people making these decisions should be putting our health and environment first,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club.

A spokeswoman said the Rauner administration is reviewing the court decision.

After the lawsuit was filed in January, an Illinois EPA spokeswoman said Messina is required to comply with two state laws that satisfy the federal requirements. But environmental groups said including conflict-of-interest standards in federally mandated pollution plans gives citizens stronger tools to hold officials accountable.

The Tribune reported in February that penalties sought from Illinois polluters had dropped to $6.1 million since Rauner took office — about two-thirds less than the inflation-adjusted amount demanded during the first three years under the Republican chief executive’s two predecessors, Democrats Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich.

Another Tribune story documented how Messina had been working behind the scenes since at least November 2016 on a plan intended to benefit one of his former clients: Dynegy Inc., a Houston-based energy company that owns eight financially struggling coal plants in central and southern Illinois.

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