With their busy schedules and tight state budgets, Democratic attorneys general have little in the way of time and resources to advance climate-change policies, which is where billionaire Michael Bloomberg comes in.
The former New York City mayor’s fortune has bankrolled a year-long effort to place privately funded lawyers as “special assistant attorneys general” in at least six states with specific instructions to work on “clean energy, climate change, and environmental interests.”
The program, run through the New York University School of Law, comes as the most disturbing example of the “billion-dollar per year climate industry” gaining access to law-enforcement authority in pursuit of a political agenda, according to a report released Wednesday by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“The scheme raises serious questions about special interests setting states’ policy and law enforcement agendas, without accountability to the taxpayers and voters whom these law enforcement officials supposedly serve,” said CEI senior fellow Chris Horner, who authored the report, “Law Enforcement for Rent: How Special Interests Fund Climate Policy Through State Attorneys General.”
Mr. Horner, who spent two-and-a-half years collecting emails and documents through the open-records requests and court orders, called for “prompt and serious legislative oversight” into the off-the-books infiltration of state law-enforcement offices by lawyers dedicated to the climate agenda.
“It represents private interests commandeering the state’s police powers to target opponents of their policy agenda and to hijack the justice system as a way to overturn the democratic process’s rejection of a political agenda,” the report said.
State attorneys general have increasingly become political foils for the White House — Republican prosecutors challenged Obamacare and the Clean Power Plan, while Democrats have filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the Trump administration — but critics say the specter of donor-funded prosecutors rises to a new level.
The State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at NYU, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, formed in response to the Trump administration to help attorneys general “fight regulatory roll-backs and other actions that undermine clean energy, climate change, and environmental values and protections.”
The center accepts applications from state attorneys general who demonstrate “a need and a commitment to advancing clean energy matters.” Salaries for the “special assistant attorneys general,” or SAAGs, range from $75,000 to $149,483 annually for a two-year commitment, the report said.
Among the states that have taken on SAAGs is New York, but Amy Spitalnick, spokeswoman and senior policy adviser for New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, described the partnership as unexceptional.
“Climate deniers continue to find new and creative ways to distract from reality. All OAG employees are accountable to the AG, period — and we’re proud of the talented team of lawyers and staff members that are part of the AG’s successful fight to protect clean water, clean air, and New Yorkers’ health,” she said in an email.
Christopher Gray, SEEIC spokesman, pointed to application language affirming that “the SAAGs’ sole duty of loyalty is to the attorney general who hired them” and that noted that the program details are spelled out on the website.
“At no point has there been a concerted effort by the State Impact Center to hide anything that we have been working on,” Mr. Gray said.
As part of the application process, he said, attorneys general must demonstrate the need for additional legal resources, and that “having an NYU fellow is consistent with any applicable state law.”
Every attorney general was invited to apply for legal fellows, he said, although no Republican AG has done so.
Meanwhile, critics of the alliance have argued it would be akin to, for example, Republican attorneys general bringing on prosecutors funded by Americans United for Life to work on Planned Parenthood issues.
Zack Roday, spokesman for the Republican Attorneys General Association, said the report “sheds necessary light on how powerful special interests operate on the left.”
“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,” Mr. Roday said. “It’s wrong and these shameless AGs should be called out for deceiving the public.”
Educational institutions and other non-profits may partner with prosecutors on placing interns or providing grants, but “not for litigation,” Mr. Roday said.
“That’s why this is so unprecedented,” said Mr. Roday, adding that nothing of its kind exists on the GOP side.
The roots of the climate-prosecutorial nexus date back to a 2012 meeting of activist groups in La Jolla, California, followed by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s 2015 lawsuit against ExxonMobil and AGs United for Clean Power, the 17-state coalition launched in 2016 to pursue the fossil-fuel industry.
The coalition has since all but disbanded, although lawsuits against Exxon filed by the Massachusetts and New York attorneys general are ongoing, despite Mr. Schneiderman’s abrupt resignation in May over allegations of physical abuse made by four women.
Cities and counties have since picked up the legal mantle. A dozen localities, as well as the state of Rhode Island, have sued oil-and-gas companies seeking compensation for damages allegedly caused by climate change, although federal judges recently threw out cases filed by New York City, San Francisco and Oakland.