Outside sources paid for new attorneys in the office of numerous attorney general offices around the country in order to gin up climate and environmental litigation for political purposes, according to a new report by a D.C.-based think tank.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a self-described free-market think tank, published the 56-page report, bolstering their claims with emails and documents from dozens of open records requests to AG offices and universities across the country over a two-and-a-half year period. Many of those requests had to be litigated to win release of the documents.
Chris Horner, the researcher and author of the paper titled "Law Enforcement for Rent," says the scheme may be expressly illegal in New York and Oregon, and is ethically dubious everywhere else.
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"This approach represents an elaborate, deliberate plan to politicize state law enforcement offices in the service of an ideological, left-wing climate policy agenda that has been frustrated by the democratic process," the report said. "Under this scheme and deviating from standard government contracting procedures, private parties with an express policy advocacy agenda can pay to place activist investigators and lawyers in state AG offices to pursue that agenda."
Per the report, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spearheaded the initiative by creating a specialized law unit within the New York University School of Law that would groom attorneys who could then be distributed nationally to do climate work for the state attorneys general, who are sometimes collectively or generically referred to as "Offices of the Attorneys General" (OAG).
The website of Bloomberg's creation, the NYU School of Law "State Energy & Environmental Impact Center," states they are non-partisan and says they support "state attorneys general in defending and promoting clean energy, climate and environmental laws and policies."
The website goes on to state that this law center works "with interested attorneys general to identify and hire NYU Law Fellows who serve as special assistant attorneys general in state attorney general offices, focusing on clean energy, climate and environmental matters."
Horner, armed with emails and other documents, says what makes the arrangement unique—and potentially unethical—is that when those people become "special assistant attorneys general in state attorney general offices," the state was not paying them.
Horner makes a case that a network of donors such as Bloomberg used the law school and other various pass-through entities like 501(c)(3) organizations that would pay the salaries.
Broadly speaking, Horner argues most OAGs are authorized by law to do their work only with the dollars their legislative bodies have appropriated. If the legislatures want additional output from the AG office, they allot additional funds. To accept additional resources from an interested outside group would mean that the system of checks and balances through which the legislative body exercises oversight of an OAG is being skirted.
Horner said that when the power of the legislative body is skirted, citizens lose some of their authority over the OAG as well.
"If what [the OAGs] are saying is, ‘Well, it's not illegal,' then they're saying they are perfectly fine with the Koch Foundation renting office space across from any office of attorney general to give her the staff she feels she really deserves that the legislature won't give him, to work on issues of Koch interest," Horner told the Washington Free Beacon in a phone interview.
An email from Oregon illustrates the ethical concerns some of the elected AGs had behind the scenes.
"I did not realize that we had Steve starting on Monday!" Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum wrote, referring to an NYU placement. "(Last I heard we were reviewing his political activity issues.) would like to see his contract and the NYU program description. We need to be sure we are prepared to explain his position to the media who, no doubt, will be interested. (Because he is being paid by an outside entity—which is quite unusual I think) Thanks."
Several days later, another email went into further detail.
"Are we sure it is correct to refer to him as a ‘volunteer.' And not an employee," Rosenblum emailed. "Can you be an unpaid employee of the State? As a [Special Assistant Attorney General] doesn't that make one an employee? I find it strange to call someone who is working under our supervision with the title of SAAG and who is getting paid (by a third party) the same as he would if he were working for DOJ as a regular AAG—a volunteer."
Rosenblum defended the arrangement in an emailed statement.
"Our NYU Fellow came to us with incredible relevant background to help us protect our-people and our precious Oregon land, air and water," she said. "He is doing a great job, thus far. He is supervised by our Natural Resources Chief Counsel and by the Deputy Attorney General, neither of whom is a political appointee. While I had some concerns about referring to Steve as a ‘volunteer' (since he is paid by the NYU Fellowship) I have been pleased with the arrangements that allow us to have complete control over the work he is doing. Without that I would not have agreed to take one of the Fellowships."
Requests for comment were not returned from the AG offices in New Mexico, Illinois, Maryland, and New York, all mentioned in the CEI report.
Some offices that applied for a special assistant attorney general emphasized that they were unable to perform the climate and environmental work without the NYU-placed attorney(s). In other words, OAGs, particularly New York, affirmatively stated they would not pursue certain work with the staffing and funding they currently had from their respective states.
"This damning report sheds necessary light on how powerful special interests operate on the left," said Zack Roday, spokesman for the Republican Attorneys General Association. "Democrats have sold out their voters; instead, they are allowing activist lawyers directed by New York University Law School—paid for by Michael Bloomberg—to go after anyone opposing their extreme political agenda. It's wrong and these shameless AGs should be called out for deceiving the public."
"We fundamentally disagree with the premise of CEI’s factually flawed report," a spokesman for Bloomberg's State Impact Center at the NYU School of Law said. "The State Impact Center operates within legal and ethical rules to assist state AGs through the substantial legal expertise of its leadership team on clean energy, climate and environmental laws and policies and through its fellows program in which state AG offices direct the day-to-day work of fellows."