Through NYU, he pays ‘pro bono’ lawyers to advance his agenda in state attorney-general offices.
By Chris Horner and Victoria Toensing
The State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, a group created by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2017, is hiring and placing lawyers in the offices of state attorneys general. The mission of the group, which is led by a former Interior Department official and housed at New York University’s law school, is to provide “direct legal assistance to interested attorneys general on specific administrative, judicial or legislative matters involving clean energy, climate change and environmental interests of regional and national significance.” At least one of the two Bloomberg “special assistant attorneys general” placed in the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James is involved with the prosecution of Exxon Mobil for its supposed offense of “climate denial.”
Emails obtained under a public-records law show that the center submits detailed biweekly reports to Bloomberg Philanthropies. State legal officers taking money from private funders to pursue policy outcomes desired by those funders is inherently suspect. It also raises questions about the laws governing gifts, campaign contributions and bribes. To the extent these Bloomberg-funded lawyers are involved in prosecutions, it raises serious due-process concerns as well.
The NYU law center’s principal focuses are thwarting Trump administration policies and advancing a green agenda. “The gist is that Bloomberg is funding through NYU some fellowship positions for midcareer environmental litigators to be farmed out to State Attorneys General to join the fight against Trump’s rollback of our environmental protection laws and regulations,” wrote Maryland’s Deputy Attorney General Carolyn Quattrocki in a November 2017 email to colleagues. Bloomberg-funded lawyers are currently assisting in dozens of lawsuits against both the Trump administration’s regulatory reforms and private entities involved in any business contrary to the green agenda.
The office of New York’s then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asked the NYU center to send two Bloomberg-funded lawyers in 2017 because it was understaffed and wanted to “expand” litigation against the Trump administration and private parties. Without a privately underwritten special assistant attorney general, Mr. Schneiderman’s office claimed, it would have trouble “opposing the Scott Pruitt nomination as EPA administrator, advocating for the United States to remain in the Paris Climate Accord,” and pursuing other green political goals, such as “building models for two different types of common law cases to seek compensation and other relief for harm caused by fossil-fuel emissions.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s application got straight to the point. His office would use Bloomberg resources “to advance the agenda represented by” the donor. Only the intervention of the state Legislature stopped him from doing so.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, whom Bloomberg supported in a 2013 primary race and who served as the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center’s lead recruiter, heavily redacted his office’s request for Bloomberg resources, forcing the public-interest law firm Government Accountability and Oversight to file suit to obtain the full application. The suit revealed that Mr. Frosh requested a $125,000 salary plus benefits for his Bloomberg-funded special assistant. Mr. Frosh appointed the lawyer under his “pro bono special counsel” authority. The term “pro bono” is generally understood to mean that the client doesn’t pay the lawyer. But under Maryland law, as affirmed in the 2015 case State v. Westray, it also means “the attorney represents the client without compensation.” Mr. Frosh had no legal authority to enter this arrangement.
The scheme is more troubling the closer one looks. Mr. Bloomberg is a major donor to Democratic politicians and causes. He has made electing progressive attorneys general his priority. Two Bloomberg-funded groups, Independence USA PAC and Everytown USA for Gun Safety, put more than $2 million into electing and re-electing Mr. Herring.
The State Energy and Environmental Impact Center has placed at least 11 special assistants in eight attorney-general offices. There could be more, but the center has stopped announcing new placements, possibly as a result of scrutiny from groups like ours. If no other state joins Virginia in standing up to Mr. Bloomberg’s scheme, there is no limiting principle on partisan appropriation of public legal offices other than that the donor and the cause be acceptable in certain polite circles. These agreements to serve a donor-driven agenda threaten the legitimacy and important work of attorneys general offices. This apparent trade in buying and selling official functions demands a full public airing and unbiased reckoning.
Originally published in the Wall Street Journal here
Mr. Horner is an attorney and member of the board of directors of Government Accountability and Oversight PC. Ms. Toensing is a partner in the law firm diGenova & Toensing, which represents GAO in its lawsuit against the Maryland Attorney General.