NY AG's Office Hiding Climate Activist's Emails Behind Whistleblower Defense

Activist attorney has led charge for state legal action against 'Big Oil'

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May 16, 2019

The New York attorney general's office is trying to use a whistleblower defense to keep emails between their office and a third-party attorney sealed and out of public view, despite the person at issue's active efforts to persuade governments across the country to sue large energy producers.

Last October, then-New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed suit against Exxon alleging the company had misled its investors by not disclosing future risks the company might face due to climate change.

Exxon is hoping emails can be made public between the attorney general's office (OAG) and outside attorney Matt Pawa, who has been a leading figure in the effort to convince government agencies to pursue lawsuits against companies like ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron.

"As ExxonMobil is well aware, the publication of such documents [from Pawa] will discourage other third parties and potential whistleblowers from communicating information about potential wrongdoing or illegality," lawyers with the New York OAG wrote in a court filing.

However, media reports and filings from other court cases show Pawa is an eager and willing participant in efforts to initiate legal action against energy producers, as has happened now with cities such as San Francisco, and states like Rhode Island.

A judge "signed off on findings of fact that document the role Matt Pawa, an attorney at Hagens Berman, had in pushing a strategy unveiled in 2012 at a conference in California," a Forbes report from last year noted.

During the 2012 conference just mentioned, "participants discussed strategies to '[w]in [a]cess to [i]nternal [d]ocuments' of energy companies, like ExxonMobil, that could be used to obtain leverage over these companies," the judge determined.

The emails in question have been turned over to Exxon as a part of discovery, but under seal. The company is asking the judge to remove the seal so it would be able to refile the documents and thereby put them into the public domain.

Apart from the strategy of suing energy producers, Pawa has also been a force behind the broader #ExxonKnew campaign, which has tried to undermine the company's reputation by alleging that its corporate scientists knew as early as the late 1970s and early 1980s about climate change and engaged in a cover-up and propaganda effort to hide culpability.

Further evidence that Pawa has collaborated with state attorneys general stems from a March 2016 meeting in which 17 AGs, as well as former vice president Al Gore, were briefed on legal strategies the state top lawyers could use based on the notion that Exxon misled the public about climate change.

After the meeting, then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Gore, and others conducted a lengthy press conference announcing their intentions.

"I thank you for joining us here today for what we believe and hope will mark a significant milestone in our collective efforts to deal with the problem of climate change, and put our heads together and put our offices together to try and take the most coordinated approach yet undertaken by states to deal with this most pressing issue of our time," Schneiderman said.

Emails later revealed that Pawa was a presenter to the AGs behind closed doors at that meeting in New York prior to the press conference, something Pawa later tried to keep from being discovered.

One of those emails shows a Wall Street Journal reporter contacted Pawa the next day and inquired about his attendance.

"I may not even talk to her at all but if I do I obviously will have no comment on anything discussed at the meeting," Pawa wrote to someone inside the New York attorney general's office as he sought guidance on the matter. "What should I say if she asks if I attended? No comment? Let me know."

"My ask is if you speak to a reporter, to not confirm that you attended or otherwise discuss the event," the lawyer replied to Pawa.

Other emails obtained via open records requests by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in D.C. show a wealthy Democratic donor reaching out to the Illinois attorney general's office to arrange a presentation by Pawa in the spring of 2016.

Requests for comment to the New York attorney general's office as well as to Pawa were not returned.