- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2016

It turns out that the George Mason University professors calling for a federal racketeering probe into climate skepticism engaged in a little colluding of their own.

A 190-page cache of emails released on a judge’s order showed that two GMU professors hatched the attack on their political foes from their taxpayer-funded perches and then switched to private emails to avoid detection after being hit with a public records request.

The emails were unearthed following an eight-month court battle between the Virginia public university, which sought to protect the professors’ communications, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and senior fellow Chris Horner, who filed the Virginia Freedom of Information Act requests.

“This victory puts on notice those academics who have increasingly inserted themselves into politics, that they cannot use taxpayer-funded positions to go after those who disagree with them and expect to hide it,” Mr. Horner said in a statement.

In November, a GMU official said there were “no records” matching the FOIA request, even though documents released by other universities indicated otherwise.

Anthony Watts, who runs the widely viewed skeptics’ website Watts Up With That, described the back-and-forth between the GMU professors as a “clear conspiracy to avoid FOIA, use public money to change narrative.”

The uproar began after 20 academics sent a Sept. 1 letter asking President Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and White House science adviser John Holdren to launch a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act probe into “corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters,” saying they had “knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.”

Led by George Mason University professors Edward Maibach and Jagadish Shukla, the letter’s signers were quickly dubbed the RICO 20.

David W. Schnare, director of the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, which represented the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Mr. Horner, said the professors overstepped their positions as public employees with their political advocacy.

“We need to protect the work of academics as set forth in Freedom of Information Acts, which laws make exception for information that should be legitimately protected, for example relating to research,” said Mr. Schnare.

“But when professors voluntarily enter the policy arena, particularly in this case when they use their positions specifically to advance a political agenda, they are no different than any other government employee and the law treats them accordingly,” he said.

The emails show Mr. Maibach and Mr. Shukla discussing strategy on the letter, which was inspired by a May 29 op-ed by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, raising the possibility of a RICO action against the “climate denial network.”

In an email exchange, Mr. Maibach says he will seek help from climate advocacy groups Union of Concerned Scientists and Environmental Defense Fund. Mr. Shukla adds that a student assistant is “available to help us” and that he is a “dedicated activist.”

But the emails also show that not all “warmists” were on board. In a July 31 email, Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists refuses to participate, saying that “deception/disinformation isn’t itself a basis for criminal prosecution under RICO.”

Mr. Maibach responds by asking Mr. Frumhoff to “keep us in the loop” and adds, “I would be delighted to get involved in assessing (and helping to shape) public opinion on this issue.”

“I am confident that a concerted ‘truth’ campaign can generate public indignation over the deceptions sponsored by the fossil fuel industry,” Mr. Maibach says in a July 31 email.

Mr. Maibach reports meeting with Labor Department Assistant Secretary David Michaels, who tells him “the odds of the DOJ pursuing this case against industry are slim to none, because there are no easily quantifiable (health care) costs that the government can seek reimbursement for.”

“You’re talking about prosecuting conservatives,” Alex Bozmoski of the climate group republicEn says in a July 29 email to Mr. Maibach.

After the Sept. 1 letter appears, the emails reveal a backlash from scientists. Georgia Tech climatologist Peter Webster calls on the RICO 20 to retract the letter, and Mr. Shukla considers it, according to a Sept. 26 email by Mr. Maibach.

“I advised [Mr. Shukla] that retraction is unlikely to make the pain go away for the signers, and it is likely to help (and embolden) climate denial organizations at precisely the moment when they are against the ropes,” Mr. Maibach says to Jeff Nesbit, executive director of Climate Nexus.

Michael Egnor, professor of neurological surgery at State University of New York at Stony Brook, calls Mr. Maibach a “disgrace to the scientific profession.”

“I am a global warming skeptic, and I insist that any criminal prosecution of skeptics include me as well,” Mr. Egnor says in a Sept. 19 email.

In fact, Mr. Maibach is not a scientist: He serves as director of GMU’s Department of Climate Change Communication and holds a Ph.D. in communication research.

Mr. Shukla, on the other hand, is a meteorologist and professor of climate dynamics, but the RICO-20 letter landed him on the radar of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The panel is investigating him for suspected “double dipping” through his recently shuttered Institute of Global Environment and Society.

After the RICO-20 letter appeared on the IGES website, University of Colorado environmental studies professor Roger Pielke Jr. pointed to records showing Mr. Shukla and his wife receiving millions of dollars for part-time work at the nonprofit institute, which was funded almost entirely by federal grants.

The professors had no immediate public comment Friday on the release of emails, but the RICO 20 did release an Oct. 2 statement stressing that they had called for an investigation into corporations and organizations, not individual scientists.

“In conclusion, we stand by our request that corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risk of climate change be investigated to determine if they knowingly deceived the public about climate change,” said the statement. “And we wish to be clear that we are not suggesting that scientists or bloggers should be investigated for expressing their beliefs.”

The same day, the newly released emails show Mr. Maibach asking “fellow letter signers” for their private email addresses. No emails contained in the Friday document release are dated after Oct. 2.

The idea of prosecuting climate skeptics has since been picked up by a coalition of 17 attorneys general. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude E. Walker has subpoenaed Exxon Mobil for its communications with free market think tanks, professors and scientists.

Marc Morano, who runs the skeptics’ website Climate Depot, chalked up the GMU episode to a case of “politically inexperienced, publicity hungry” professors getting in over their heads.

“One has to wonder what these people were thinking when they expected dissenters to just roll over,” Mr. Morano said in a Friday post, “and waive their precious free speech rights.”

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