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State AGs accused of signing secrecy pact while pursuing climate change probe

The 15 state attorneys general who are engaged in a climate change investigation targeting ExxonMobil all signed a secrecy agreement aimed at thwarting open-records requests, a Washington, D.C.-based policy institute charged Thursday.

The Energy & Environment Legal Institute released a copy of what’s called a common-interest agreement that was signed by representatives of the state attorneys general, as well as attorneys general in Washington and the Virgin Islands. The institute said the pact went beyond the scope of traditional common-interest agreements and was expressly drafted to obstruct transparency laws.

The attorneys general launched an investigation into ExxonMobil and possibly others in the fossil-fuel industry that they contend may have misled consumers and investors about the true nature of climate change.

“It’s baffling that these AGs feel they can trample on their own states’ public records laws,” the institute’s legal counsel, David Schnare, said in a prepared statement. “If they truly believe that they are engaged in anything other than a purely political campaign, they should have no problem explaining to the public what they are doing and subjecting their activities to the scrutiny their legislatures demanded.”

The agreement urges the signers to keep discussions pertaining to the investigation confidential and calls on them to “refuse to disclose any shared information unless required by law.”

Chaim Mandelbaum, another counsel for the institute, told AMI Newswire that the District of Columbia’s attorney general’s office released the document as part of a litigation settlement. This came after the institute’s multiple open-records requests went unanswered, Mandelbaum said.

A spokesman for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman countered that entering into such an agreement was a routine practice to preserve the confidentiality of public records that are part of investigations and shared among state law-enforcement officials.

“The suggestion that a common-interest agreement is anything other than a standard, routine and responsible law-enforcement practice is utter nonsense,” Nick Benson stated in an email to AMI Newswire. “This is just another press release by fossil-fuel-industry allies hoping to distract, deflect and delay a serious fraud investigation into potential corporate fraud and malfeasance. Needless to say, it will not be effective.”

Mandelbaum disputed the idea that the wording of the agreement was routine.

“That’s not true, and the attorney general of New York knows that,” he said, adding that such agreements can only be made when litigation – such as a formal charge that an oil company violated New York’s racketeering laws – is ongoing or reasonably anticipated.

The institute contends that the agreement was drafted not in anticipation of litigation but to keep what it contends is a politically motivated climate change agenda under wraps.

Schneiderman’s office and the other attorney generals argue that ExxonMobil may have misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change and also colluded with nonprofit policy organizations to spread a false message.

The Energy & Environment Legal Institute’s statements come on the heels of a congressional panel issuing subpoenas to the attorneys general to determine whether the states are pursuing a politically motivated action against climate change skeptics that may violate their First Amendment rights. The attorneys general, in turn, vowed that they would not comply with subpoenas issued by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s chairman, Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

The decision to issue the subpoenas, however, has created a partisan divide within the House panel itself. Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and fellow Democrats issued a statement in July that said, “The majority’s illegitimate actions set a very dangerous precedent and are one more step towards solidifying this committee’s unfortunate new reputation as a committee of witch hunts.”

Mandelbaum emphasized the institute was not co-ordinating its efforts with those of the congressional panel. The institute is engaged in efforts to promote public transparency and is legally prohibited from engaging in politics.

“We hope to be able to release additional documents in the near future,” he added.