Other Democratic presidential primary contenders may push the Green New Deal, but Michael R. Bloomberg is advancing his climate change agenda behind the scenes with the help of one Democratic state attorney general at a time.
Since its founding in 2017, the billionaire’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University School of Law has quietly planted climate lawyers — paid by the center — with Democratic attorneys general in nine states and the District of Columbia despite alarm over what Republicans call his “liberal mercenaries.”
The next state may be Michigan. A cache of emails obtained by Energy Policy Advocates showed the office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel entering into discussions to bring on a Bloomberg-funded “special assistant attorney general” as her staff considered climate litigation against Exxon Mobil.
David Hayes, executive director of the State Impact Center, “is keenly interested in supporting the MI AG office,” Skip Pruss, Michigan special assistant attorney general, said in a June 12 email.
“The IC funds the salaries of 17 Law Fellows who serve as SAAGs in their respective states,” said Mr. Pruss, who was not hired via the program. “State AGs recruit and select their own Law Fellows. (Although the program is completely transparent and ethical, it may engender backlash.)”
Deputy Attorney General Kelly Keenan replied, “This is very interesting. I will see about getting something scheduled.”
The backlash has come largely from Republicans, who have accused Mr. Bloomberg of bypassing the legislative process and leveraging the power of public prosecutors to crack down on the oil and gas industry. They call it a sign of things to come at the Justice Department if Mr. Bloomberg wins the White House in November.
Adam Piper, executive director of the Republican Attorneys General Association, accused Democratic attorneys general of “renting the badge” and disputed the contention that the special assistant attorneys general work on a pro bono basis.
“Pro bono means as a volunteer,” Mr. Piper said. “These folks are being funded as mercenaries, liberal mercenaries, not just on a climate issue but other issues near and dear to Mike Bloomberg’s radical liberalism. And they’re doing everything from filing suits to writing comment letters to testifying at Trump administration hearings.”
Virginia last year barred the attorney general from accepting privately paid prosecutors, who come with strings attached: They must “defend environmental values and advance legal and policy positions to promote clean energy at the regional and national level.”
Pushing back was State Impact Center spokesman Tom Lalley, who said the nonpartisan program “brings academic rigor and independence to its mission of supporting state attorneys general who are protecting existing environmental regulations, addressing climate change and respecting the law.”
Founded with a $6 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the center has embedded climate lawyers in attorneys general offices in Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York and Oregon.
“The Center also provides legal assistance to interested AGs and serves as a centralized public source of information for ongoing AG initiatives to enhance the public’s understanding of the importance of the clean energy, climate change and environmental matters that attorneys general are pursuing,” Mr. Lalley said in an email.
Chris Horner of the public interest law firm Government Accountability & Oversight, who secured the emails on the Environmental Protection Agency’s behalf through open records requests, said the latest emails “provide a case study in the capture of an AG’s office.”
“This scheme by an activist donor [Bloomberg] to place attorneys in AG offices to advance his priorities is on its face staggering,” said Mr. Horner. “That the activist developed it while more broadly cultivating support among elected officials at all levels through his foundation, and apparently with a run for the White House also in mind, makes it simply unbelievable.”
The Michigan emails show the attorney general’s office entering into discussions on climate litigation with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and Vic Sher, whose San Francisco law firm Sher Edling represents a host of climate litigants, including Rhode Island.
The conduit was Mr. Pruss, a special assistant attorney general who has extensive experience in state government and founded 5 Lakes Energy, a clean energy advocacy group. His paycheck is not funded by the Bloomberg center but with state funds, said Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney.
She said the office has not retained a Bloomberg-funded attorney nor has it followed Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island in suing Exxon Mobil.
“It is no secret that Attorney General Nessel has taken several actions seeking to address greenhouse gas emissions and climate change — and will continue to take action to address this significant problem,” Ms. Rossman-McKinney said in an email. “However, no action has been taken related to Exxon Mobil.”
That could change. In a May 28 email under the subject line “Exxon lawsuit,” Peter Manning, chief of the attorney general’s office’s environment division, informed Ms. Nessel and others that he had spoken with Mr. Pruss about “the lawsuits against Exxon for failure to disclose the impact of its activities on climate change.”
“I am happy to be part of a meeting with the League of Conservation Voters,” Mr. Manning said. “But I understand the focus of the AG activity related to Exxon has been on consumer protection actions, so it may make sense to have [state consumer officials] involved as well.”
Mr. Pruss told Mr. Sher afterward that the office would “pick up this conversation” after selecting outside counsel for litigation related to synthetic chemical pollutants. In October, the office held a “climate change litigation” call.
New York Attorney General Letitia James lost a high-profile climate fraud lawsuit against Exxon Mobil in December after a four-year legal battle. A state judge called the lawsuit “hyperbolic” and “ill-conceived.” Ms. James did not appeal the decision.
The Bloomberg climate lawyers became an issue during the litigation. Exxon Mobil, which argued that the lawsuit was politically motivated, sought information about New York’s two Bloomberg-funded special assistant attorneys general, who said in affidavits that they had never filed reports to nor received direction from the center.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison mentioned “supporting state-led investigations against ExxonMobil” in his application for a climate lawyer, as shown in documents obtained by Climate Litigation Watch.
Supporters of the Bloomberg program argue that the privately paid lawyers work under the direction of the attorney general, as outside counsel do, but Mr. Piper said such an arrangement would be far more controversial if the shoe were on the other foot.
“Let’s say it’s 2016,” Mr. Piper said. “Imagine if Donald Trump in 2013 or 2014 had gone to the Scalia School of Law and said, ‘Here’s $10 million. I want you to put crusaders for the Constitution in Republican AGs’ offices.’ The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico wouldn’t have been very kind to us.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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