Environmentalists seeking racketeering charges for oil companies often compare their effort to the legal fight against tobacco companies in the 1990s, and for one leader of the effort the parallels include major financial incentives.
Dr. Edward Maibach directs George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, where he works to "mobilize populations to adopt behaviors and support public policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions," according to a biography on GMU’s website.
Maibach is a leading advocate of federal racketeering charges for climate "deniers," particularly oil companies, which he compares to tobacco firms that publicly lied about the dangers of smoking. A massive legal settlement in 1998 cost those companies more than $200 billion.
Maibach received part of that settlement through his public relations job at the time, when his firm was employed by a nonprofit funded by the settlement. He sees similar financial opportunities if the federal government pursues civil charges against oil companies under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a federal law designed to go after the mob.
GMU meteorologist Jagadish Shukla joined Maibach and 18 other academics in a September letter to President Barack Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and White House science advisor John Holdren asking them to pursue federal RICO charges against oil companies and other climate "deniers."
Lynch later referred the case to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which will decide whether civil RICO charges are warranted.
Maibach has told allies that he hopes a RICO case against oil companies will prove a financial boon to groups like his Center for Climate Change Communication.
"If there was a settlement between the government and the fossil fuel industry" stemming from a RICO investigation, "there is no question in my mind that a good portion of that money should be spent on a national campaign to educate people on the risks of climate change, and build their resolve to work towards solutions," Maibach told the website Grist last year.
Maibach already receives significant grant money for just those sorts of campaigns. One recent grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded his research on methods for "persuading the public and policy-makers to take action" on climate change.
Maibach elaborated on the financial opportunities of an oil company settlement in a sworn deposition in February as part of an open records lawsuit brought by an attorney seeking internal communications about the "RICO 20" letter.
"I was, essentially, suggesting that the way that played out historically on the tobacco issue is very likely to be a similar—it's likely to play out in a similar way with regard to any potential deceptions of the public about climate change," Maibach said in his deposition.
The way that it "played out" with respect to "the tobacco issue" involved large payments from the American Legacy Foundation, the anti-smoking group set up with money from the tobacco settlement, to Porter Novelli, the communications firm that employed Maibach prior to his stint at GMU.
"That settlement … ended up funding quite a lot of anti-tobacco work that I, in fact, was directly involved in," he said in his deposition.
In crafting the RICO 20 letter, Maibach suggested that he and Shukla consult with Porter Novelli founder Bill Novelli, "who was central in the tobacco suit. He could give us counsel on how to be most effective."
Maibach also reached out to another former colleague, Occupational Safety and Health Administration director David Michaels. Maibach had breakfast with Michaels in July to discuss the RICO letter, then in its formative stages. "He is an expert in the case against the tobacco industry," he told Shukla in an email.
Michaels was pessimistic about the RICO effort.
"He feels the odds of the DOJ pursuing this case against industry are slim to none, because there are no easily quantifiable (health care) costs that the government can seek reimbursement for," Maibach reported.
When Maibach was deposed in February, he swore under oath that he had not met with any government officials about the effort—or did not remember any such meeting.
Asked whether he spoke "with any government officials inside or outside of law enforcement" about the RICO letter, Maibach replied, "Not to the best of my recollection."
"I spoke to the Union of Concerned Scientists," Maibach said. "To the best of my recollection, that's the only organization I spoke to about it."
In fact, Maibach solicited input on the letter from former Rep. Bob Inglis (R., S.C.) and other members of his conservative-branded environmental group, RepublicEN.
Maibach did not respond to questions about his financial stake in an Exxon settlement or discrepancies in his deposition testimony.