A Vermont Judge recently delivered not one, but two stinging blows to the coalition of Democratic state attorneys general supporting New York AG Eric Schneiderman’s investigation of ExxonMobil. Specifically, the judge ruled against the Vermont AG’s office, which partnered with Schneiderman to organize the “Green 20” coalition meeting with Al Gore on March 29, 2016.” The rulings order that office to comply with public records laws and disclose all of its communications with the New York Attorney General’s Office.
Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout handed the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal) two victories by ordering the release of records between the attorneys general of New York and Vermont concerning some of their correspondence about a potential multi-state suit against Exxon for supposedly hiding climate change from its investors. Specifically, any discussions of sharing documents with “outside advisors” pursuant to a secrecy pact. She also granted E&E Legal’s motion to bring former Vermont AG Bill Sorrell into the litigation personally so the group could request correspondence from his private emails since both he and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman used private email accounts, specifically Gmail, in their Exxon discussions.
The office of the Vermont Attorney General had denied the E&E Legal’s initial request, arguing that all of their communications were protected by attorney-client privilege. E&E Legal had issued nearly identical requests of several other AGs participating in the coalition, and Vermont was the only state to deny the request. Judge Teachout didn’t buy the Vermont AG’s argument, pointedly asking, “So is that your argument? …That the Attorney General’s Office never has to comply with any public records request because it is the attorney for the state of Vermont?”
In addition to claiming attorney-client privilege, Chief Assistant Attorney General William Griffin also said the AG’s office takes into consideration the nature of the organization or individual requesting information:
“We get a request from EELI [E&E Legal] and so one thing we might consider is where are they—who are these people? Where are they going with this? And we Google them and we find, you know, coal or Exxon or whatever – and so we’re thinking this is – we better – we better give this some thought before we – before we share information with this entity. Or it might be a news organization and we think, well, what are they going to do with it? Well, they’re going to publish it to the world.”
Essentially, if the Vermont Attorney General’s office is under the impression that it can ignore public records requests if it doesn’t care for the activities of the requesting organization. The AG’s office also indicated in its remarks that it believes it doesn’t need to disclose public records to the very media charged with investigating corruption and holding public officials accountable.
This is a clear violation of Vermont law, which says agencies can’t take politics into account for making a request, and the statement was strongly criticized by Vermont media outlets.”…if Griffin had bothered with the Constitution (or law) while in law school (or even third-grade civics)… he wouldn’t have made such ludicrous arguments,” wrote the Caledonian Record. “We’re pleased by Judge Teachout’s reminder that the Attorney General enjoys no statutory privilege to ignore the law for political expedience.”
The Judge’s ruling gave the Vermont Attorney General thirty days to turn over records relating to ExxonMobil discussions with the New York Attorney General. The current Attorney General of Vermont, T.J. Donovan, has agreed to turn over the documents his office considers public records, though it remains to be seen just how thorough that disclosure will be.
Even though the Vermont judge granted E&E Legal’s motion to request private-account work-related email records between former AG Sorrell and New York AG Eric Schneiderman, the Vermont Office of the Attorney General has refused to turn over those records, stating the Office of the AG was not the custodian of Sorrell’s private emails. In response, E&E Legal announced earlier this week that it was filing a new lawsuit against former AG Bill Sorrell and current AG T.J. Donovan regarding the release of private emails.
In a statement, E&E Legal counsel Matthew Hardin said:
“Vermont’s current attorney general is the lawyer protecting former AG Sorrell’s work-related Gmails from public disclosure, and apparently also from compelling Sorrell to turn over to the government and to the public the very records that he created in the use of a taxpayer-funded office. This is not how a transparent government operates and the people of Vermont deserve better.” (emphasis added)
Though the efforts to hold these attorneys general accountable will likely continue for some time, the Vermont judge’s rulings get us two steps closer to uncovering the truth behind the AGs’ political witch hunt against fossil fuel companies.