Link to fel­low­ship crit­i­cized

Com­plaint ac­cuses state AG’S of­fice of mis­con­duct over suit against Exxonmo­bil

Albany Times Union - - EMPIRE STATE - By Rachel Sil­ber­stein

In the lat­est ef­fort to scut­tle the state’s cli­mate change lit­i­ga­tion against Exxonmo­bil, the con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing Gov­ern­ment Jus­tice Cen­ter has filed a com­plaint with the state’s Joint Com­mis­sion on Pub­lic Ethics ac­cus­ing the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice of mis­con­duct.

The com­plaint crit­i­cizes At­tor­ney Gen­eral Bar­bara Un­der­wood’s of­fice for us­ing a le­gal fel­low­ship pro­gram fi­nanced by for­mer New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foun­da­tion to aid in its “spe­cious and spec­u­la­tive” lit­i­ga­tion against fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies.

Un­der­wood’s of­fice is among nine at­tor­neys gen­eral in the na­tion that work with at­tor­neys pro­vided by NYU School of Law’s State En­ergy and En­vi­ron­men­tal Im­pact Cen­ter, funded by Bloomberg Phi­lan­thropies to sup­ple­ment states’ ef­forts to fight fed­eral roll-backs of en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and re­new­able en­ergy poli­cies.

“New York pub­lic of­fi­cials are eth­i­cally ob­li­gated to fol­low the law and con­duct state busi­ness with­out giv­ing the im­pres­sion of be­ing im­prop­erly inf lu­enced by oth­ers,” said Cameron J. Macdon­ald, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Gov­ern­ment Jus­tice Cen­ter. “And the ex­tra­or­di­nary pow­ers of New York’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, es­pe­cially un­der New York’s unique Mar­tin Act, are be­ing rented to a third-party spe­cial in­ter­est.”

One of two spe­cial as­sis­tant at­tor­neys named in the com­plaint have worked on the Exxon case, and only in a ju­nior ca­pac­ity, ac­cord­ing to the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice.

Macdon­ald, who authored the com­plaint, ar­gues that if “out­side spe­cial in­ter­est” is de­ter­min­ing a state agency’s pol­icy di­rec­tives it would vi­o­late New York’s Pub­lic Of­fi­cers Law.

The law states that “an of­fi­cer or em­ployee of a state agency, mem­ber of the leg­is­la­ture or leg­isla­tive em­ployee should not by his or her con­duct give rea­son­able ba­sis for the im­pres­sion that any per­son can im­prop­erly in­flu­ence him or her or un­duly enjoy his or her fa­vor in the per­for­mance of his or her of­fi­cial du­ties.”

It is com­mon for gov­ern­ment law de­part­ments to bring on staff members funded by other en­ti­ties, such as firms or ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions, and the NYU cen­ter has no role in su­per­vis­ing the fel­lows, a spokes­woman for the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice said.

“OAG con­sulted with JCOPE re­gard­ing em­ploy­ing fel­lows from NYU’S State En­ergy and En­vi­ron­men­tal Im­pact Cen­ter and we are con­fi­dent we are in full com­pli­ance with State law, JCOPE rules, and past prece­dent of sim­i­lar pro­grams,” said Amy Spi­tal­nick, a spokes­woman for the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice. “This is just an­other des­per­ate ef­fort by Exxon’s al­lies to dis­tract and de­flect from the mas­sive se­cu­ri­ties fraud al­leged in our com­plaint.”

Un­der­wood’s of­fice is su­ing Exxon, cit­ing The Mar­tin Act, for mis­lead­ing in­vestors about its knowl­edge of cli­mate change and the po­ten­tial ef­fects that cli­mate change could have on Exxon’s busi­ness.

New York Repub­li­can of­fi­cials have ar­gued against the “overuse” of the Mar­tin Act and the wield­ing of the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s power for what they see as par­ti­san causes.

Law­suit Re­form Al­liance of New York Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor Tom Steb­bins, who con­tends that cli­mate change pol­icy should be de­cided by leg­is­la­tors, not lit­i­ga­tors and judges, also crit­i­cized the state’s use of at­tor­neys paid by pri­vate en­ti­ties.

“This prac­tice def­i­nitely has the ap­pear­ance of im­pro­pri­ety,” Steb­bins said. “We can­not have bil­lion­aires pay­ing to use elected of­fi­cials as their per­sonal mer­ce­nar­ies, es­pe­cially when it comes to an of­fice as pow­er­ful as the New York at­tor­ney gen­eral’s.”

New York Pub­lic In­ter­est Group’s Blair Horner dis­missed the ethics

com­plaint as an­other at­tempt by oil com­pa­nies and their al­lies to “muddy the wa­ters.”

“This is re­ally a sideshow to the main event. The main event is that

Exxon, ac­cord­ing to the AG, has been mis­lead­ing its share­hold­ers and po­ten­tial share­hold­ers,” Horner said. “The courts will ul­ti­mately make a de­ci­sion on this, not JCOPE.”

Fed­eral judges have re­jected Exxon’s pre­vi­ous at­tempts to block the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s case.

John Carl D’an­ni­bale / Times Union archive

The At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s of­fice, headed by Bar­bara Un­der­wood, above, says a com­plaint lodged over its suit against fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies is “des­per­ate ef­fort by Exxon’s al­lies” and a dis­trac­tion.

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