‘This Whole Scenario Raises Obvious Ethical and Legal Concerns’: GOP AGs Blast Bloomberg’s Legal Fellows
- Jan 14, 2020 11:00 am GMT
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Since environmentalist mega-donor and now-Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg provided an inaugural $6 million grant for New York University School of Law to launch the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center (SEEIC) in August 2017, the program has been a point of controversy. Now its critics include several state attorneys general, who have spoken out publicly about the gross legal and ethical problems with the program which has seated 18 special assistant attorneys general (SAAGs) in the offices of 11 Democratic state attorneys general.
In a recently published article, Republican attorneys general told the Daily Caller News Foundation’s Chris White that the arrangement is akin to paying for government access and likening them to political mercenaries. As Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill (R) pointed out:
“What’s problematic is the arrangement through which a private organization or individual can promote an overtly political agenda by paying the salaries of government employees.”
Hill believes that Bloomberg’s program pushes the envelope of ethical acceptability:
“[A]ll of the government employees being compensated in this manner are lawyers working for Democratic attorneys general, according to NYU’s website. This whole scenario raises obvious ethical and legal concerns.” (emphasis added).
Hill isn’t the only attorney general speaking out about his concerns. A spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr told the Daily Caller that Carr had “serious concerns” about the SAAGs’ ability to represent the state “in an unbiased manner.”
As EID Climate has highlighted previously, the SEEIC’s anti-fossil fuels bias is inherent in its messaging, most notably by calling for state attorneys general committed to “advancing progressive clean energy, climate change, and environmental legal positions” to apply for the program’s fellows. In their application, state attorneys general need to demonstrate that the fellows would work on cases that the offices would not otherwise have staff or resources to pursue.
In the New York attorney general’s office, that included its Martin Act lawsuit against ExxonMobil, which New York lost in December. SEEIC fellow Matthew Eisenson was hired by the attorney general and worked on the securities fraud lawsuit. New York’s other SEEIC fellow, Gavin McCabe, assisted in New York City’s public nuisance climate lawsuit, signing onto an amicus brief in support of the city’s case as counsel for the attorney general. Amid controversy about the fellows’ work fighting fossil fuel companies on behalf of a private interest, both men were hired full time by the New York attorney general’s office in early 2019. Neither Eisenson nor McCabe lists their affiliation to the Bloomberg-funded program on their LinkedIn page.
To some observers, this looks like Bloomberg is buying influence, not with bribes, but through something more subtle–the gift of manpower. In a piece quoting White’s article for the American Thinker, a conservative news and commentary site, Deputy Editor Monica Showalter aptly summed up the situation:
“[Bloomberg]’s doing something quite a bit sneakier: He’s buying a government. Seriously, in the manner of privateers of old, he’s offering ‘gifts’ of ‘free’ left-wing lawyers to state attorney generals’ offices with the express purpose of undercutting President Trump on greenie regulations.”
Showalter argues that Bloomberg financed the NYU program to place handpicked SAAGs in state offices around the country where they work behind the scenes to enact a radical environmentalist agenda. Instead of elected congressional representatives enacting policies their constituents support, she argues, Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and other billionaire donors are using secretive funding mechanisms to craft state regulation and policy without any accountability to voters.
Likening the SAAGs to “an army of mercenaries,” she described the scheme as a threat to representative government:
“The whole thing strikes at the heart of representative government and replaces it with a government of billionaire minions, mercenaries loyal only to the billionaire paying their salaries and calling the shots.”
Republican Attorney General Association Executive Director Adam Piper echoed her comments:
“These folks are the definition of mercenaries,” he told the Daily Caller. “Imagine if Donald Trump in 2012 … decided to put a bunch of grants together to put a bunch of sources inside Republican attorneys general offices.”
The Daily Caller’s story comes as Bloomberg and the SEEIC are coming under increased scrutiny. Bloomberg may have been trying to fly under the radar with his pay-to-play legal scheme, but he hasn’t been able to escape press attention lately. For example, over the summer, the Wall Street Journal highlighted the likely ethical violations of Bloomberg’s program in an op-ed by Chris Horner, a board member of the Government Accountability and Oversight (GAO), and Victoria Toensing, an attorney representing the group in a lawsuit against the Maryland Attorney General. They argued that the arrangement was “inherently suspect” and raised due process concerns and questions about the legality of gifts, campaign contributions, and bribes:
“Emails obtained under a public-records law show that the center submits detailed biweekly reports to Bloomberg Philanthropies. State legal officers taking money from private funders to pursue policy outcomes desired by those funders is inherently suspect. It also raises questions about the laws governing gifts, campaign contributions and bribes. To the extent these Bloomberg-funded lawyers are involved in prosecutions, it raises serious due-process concerns as well…
“These agreements to serve a donor-driven agenda threaten the legitimacy and important work of attorneys general offices. This apparent trade in buying and selling official functions demands a full public airing and unbiased reckoning.”
Around the same time, the GAO filed suit against Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey seeking correspondence and documents relating to the SAAGs’ hiring and work in the state attorney general offices. Some of the emails the organization obtained showed that John “JB” Howard, a Bloomberg SAAG placed in the Maryland attorney general’s office, sought direction from the SEEIC’s director, David Hayes, on what his focus should be as he looked at future positions. This contradicted the SEEIC’s repeated claims that the SAAGs answer to the state attorneys general, not the Bloomberg-backed center.
State attorneys general offices have largely avoided talking about this alarming arrangement, but, more recently, state legislatures are waking up to the questionable ethics. In Virginia, legislators blocked their state from joining the program through a budget amendment requiring staff working in the attorney general’s office to be paid from the state treasury. In Oregon, the state’s office of legal counsel warned legislators that the arrangement was “not entirely legal” and in Washington state, a former state AG has publicly called the program, an “unsettling effort that undermines the integrity of state law enforcement.”
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