Law Firm Pitching Climate Suits Sought to Evade Detection by Open Records

Questions remain as to whether conversations conformed to local lobbying laws

Getty Images
December 4, 2018

Sher Edling, the law firm heading up a number of climate lawsuits brought by governments against oil producers like Exxon and BP, sought to move some of their conversations with the city of Miami Beach offline with the express concern of hoping to keep the discussion's details out of documents that might later be obtained through open records requests.

Sher Edling now represents several state and local governments, including San Francisco, Oakland, Rhode Island, and Baltimore, that are suing major energy producers for alleged damages from the effects of climate change.

This May, Charles Savitt with Sher Edling emailed two officials with the City of Miami Beach and while asking for an appointment said, "Given state law, let's talk rather than me send you anything."

A day after that original email, Savitt was more explicit when again talking with the same officials, writing, "Given public records laws it is much better for us to talk on the phone. Do you have time today or tomorrow?"

The emails were obtained through open records requests by the legal group Government Accountability & Oversight, a non-profit which uses open records laws to investigate influences on energy and environmental policy.

Savitt appears to have been requesting a meeting with the Miami Beach mayor and other officials, but the exact nature of the meeting isn't specified.

However, another email shows Savitt trying to set up a meeting with some officials from the city for a "funder briefing in the Bay Area on 6/6/18."

It is not known if any meeting took place, or if it did, what officials from Miami Beach may have attended.

While Savitt is an employee of Sher Edling, he is not an attorney. On his email signature he lists himself as the firm's director of strategic client relationships.

Additionally, as Savitt was making these contacts, officials within the Miami Beach government began to note that if he were going to stay in conversation with them, he would need to register as a lobbyist to be in line with the city's broad lobbying requirements.

"Is he an attorney that wants me to retain him in potential sea level rise litigation?" City Attorney Raul Aguila asked in an email dated June 22. "If so, he needs to register as a lobbyist and [the] Mayor nor anyone else should meet with him until he does so."

The Washington Free Beacon searched the Miami Beach online lobbyist registration records, and could not locate filings for a Chuck or Charles Savitt, nor for any person related to Sher Edling.

Unless or until a document is found, it is oftentimes impossible to know when a search for a document has been exhaustive, so a lobbyist registration by Savitt remains a possibility. However, neither Savitt nor the city produced a copy of his registration if it exists when asked by the Free Beacon, and neither entity returned requests for comment.

Whether Savitt registered or not and despite Aguila's concern, other emails indicate the executive assistant to Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber offered up three dates in July that were possibilities for the mayor to meet with Savitt.

Savitt also emailed the city's chief resiliency officer, Susanne Torriente, in late July, which included a link to a article talking about many of the climate litigation suits which were already in play, most of them in California. Torriente then forwarded the email to the Miami Beach city manager.

Even for an email as simple as this, it is likely Savitt would have needed to be registered as a lobbyist. A recent article by the Miami Herald noted that anyone "hoping to influence the actions or decisions of public officials" must register as a lobbyist.

Other emails also show Savitt reaching out to the city in February referencing remarks by former Miami Beach mayor Phillip Levine in which he said governments should sue fossil fuel producers. Levine was a candidate for governor at the time of the remarks.

As the Free Beacon previously reported, other open records productions have shown Sher Edling pitching their services for climate lawsuits to San Francisco and Miami. For most of the cases which have been filed, it is believed that Sher Edling is working on a contingency fee basis, meaning the law firm won't receive any money for their work unless they're successful in winning a judgment in court or forcing a settlement from the energy companies. However, the client agreement has not been successfully obtained in each of these lawsuits.