New York regulators asked an ethics panel to investigate potential conflicts of interest claims after the attorney general's office hired an attorney paid for by former mayor-turned-environmentalist billionaire Michael Bloomberg.
The request was sent the same day that a government watchdog group filed an open records request about the hiring of two Bloomberg-funded attorneys into the attorney general's office. Bloomberg has turned his attention to environmental issues, gun control, and anti-tobacco regulations since leaving office. The former New York City mayor's most ambitious project has been funding the "State Energy and Environmental Impact Center" (SEEIC) at the New York University School of Law. The program trains and deploys attorneys to work in state attorney general offices around the country. Its selling point is the fact that it would pay the salaries of all new hires at no cost to taxpayers.
One participant said the system was designed specifically to thwart the Trump administration's deregulation agenda.
"The gist is that Bloomberg is funding through NYU some fellowship positions for mid-career environmental litigators to be farmed out to State Attorney's General to join the fight against Trump's rollback of our environmental protection laws and regulations," Maryland deputy attorney general Carolyn Quattrocki wrote in a 2017 email.
That email was one document out of thousands obtained by Chris Horner, a watchdog who has worked for a small number of D.C.-based nonprofits, including Government Accountability and Oversight, P.C., as well as the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Other documents show that in January of 2018, the attorney general's accepted an offer from SEEIC for two lawyers specializing in environmental law, Matthew Eisenson and Gavin McCabe. Neither returned requests for comment.
In October of 2018, Horner filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the attorney general’s office asking copies of any "ethics determinations" on accepting an attorney through the SEEIC "fellowship" program. Horner said his records request is the only reason the attorney general's office has taken an interest in determining the ethics of the partnership with Bloomberg's program. He added that the office had ignored questions about potential conflicts of interest beforehand.
"We know NY OAG only sought an ethics opinion over 13 months after promising Bloomberg's group there were no ethics issues, and 8 months after having already brought them on board," Horner told the Washington Free Beacon in an email. "In a remarkable coincidence, this belated request came the same day I sent a public records request for any such ethics opinions."
The NYOAG did not respond to a request for comment.
The same court filing also showed that the attorney general's office was supposed to send periodic reports back to Bloomberg’s SEEIC per the "fellowship" agreement, three or more of which would already have been sent as of now. It has only made one of those reports available and has not explained why others have not been produced.
"The OAG has provided only one such report to the NYU Center," the office said in a legal filing. The copy of that report was only provided for a closed-door inspection by the court. It has not explained why it did not produce others.
Ultimately, the New York ethics board gave the go-ahead to the AG's office. Horner questioned that determination, saying the legal justification relied on the presence of Bloomberg fellow in other states.
"Further, what reads like an advocacy document, in defense of OAG having gone rogue, is based on a fuzzy grasp of the actual arrangement," Horner said in an email. "For example, the opinion states more than once that, after all, NY was (already) one of 27 OAGs that had accepted ‘fellows.' That's not an actual argument, but it also is untrue, and Bloomberg's group has apparently edited the webpage [the ethics body] cited."
The elaborate plan of creating a network of attorneys in top state law enforcement offices funded by a third-party has generated some controversy. The Wall Street Journal published a pair of editorial criticizing the practice as threatening "the fair administration of justice."
"The ethical problems here should be obvious," the Journal wrote in November 2018. "Private interests are leveraging the police powers of the state to pursue their political agenda."
In June, the Journal editorial board criticized the lack of transparency in the arrangement. It highlighted the absence of the reports from the public record as a roadblock to accountability.
"Documents may reveal a trail of influence peddling," it wrote. "Quarterly reports from the New York AG to the SEEIC explain the fellows' contributions to environmental initiatives. But the AG’s office has not divulged those reports in records requested by Mr. Horner. Biweekly reports between the SEEIC and its advisory council may also be illuminating. In an email that Mr. Horner obtained in a separate records request, the SEEIC described the biweekly reports as ‘on a close hold basis.’ Why the secrecy if this is nothing shady?"