New Records Suit Against MN AG Ellison Raises Further Questions About Office’s Coordination With Outside Lobbyists

What’s in an Email Address? In Minnesota, the Answer Could be Quite Telling

Last week, Energy Policy Advocates filed a lawsuit in Minnesota’s Fifth District Court (Lyon County) over the Minnesota Office of the Attorney General’s failure to provide public records which would shed light on why a University of Minnesota law professor was given an official email account from that Office, which he then provided to an outside activist for purposes of lobbying the Office to file suit against a Minnesota employer. That activist was working as part of a campaign underwritten by private outside parties who also labored to obscure their involvement, which campaign is of great public interest.

The professor, Prentiss Cox, provided an AG address in his name to outside activist Michael Noble, Director of the pressure group called Fresh Energy, as the parties corresponded about Noble’s ultimately successful effort on behalf of Rockefeller Family Fund to lobby AG Keith Ellison to file suit against energy companies claiming “consumer fraud” and that they’ve caused global warming. Records show Cox was Noble’s initial and principal point of contact in the AG’s Office for this project. However, the AG’s website and staff directory offer no indication that Cox has any official role with the AG which might explain why he was given an account to, presumably, attempt to manufacture claims of “privilege” to keep correspondence from the public. He remains listed on the University’s website as faculty.

As a report published earlier this year exhaustively documented, Noble lobbied Ellison to file this suit against private energy companies and associations — including a Lyon County employer and large refinery in Minnesota that employs hundreds of people — after being provided sample pleadings by the Director of RFF, Lee Wasserman, of the kind of suit RFF wanted filed against the companies. Working first through Cox, then UMN professor Alexandra Klass, Noble arranged for the suit with the assistance of “lawyers advising Rockefeller family fund” [sic], the Center for Climate Integrity.

Noble arranged for a memorandum, ghost co-written by CCI but nominally by Klass and four students and — apparently improperly — then placed on official University stationery as University scholarship.

Public records show that the memorandum was first run by RFF for approval prior to sending to Ellison. Records also show that this suit is part of a broader coordinated campaign (see below), one that other litigation pleadings, “privilege logs” and public records requests affirm RFF was behind. Records also show that Wasserman, after becoming a focus in related litigation against and by energy companies his campaign has targeted, turned to his me.com account to arrange this “joint project” with Noble, for reasons Wasserman said he could explain when they spoke.

“Minnesotans should be concerned that the AG office appears to be handing out official email accounts – that bring with them at least the optics of the weight of the highest law enforcement officer in the state – like candy at a homecoming parade,” said EPA’s attorney who filed the case, GAO board member Matthew Hardin.

EPA brought suit against Ellison’s Office under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act seeking any and all records involving correspondence of several parties, including Ellison, sent to or from the Minnesota AG office to or from University of Minnesota Professors Alexandra Klass and Prentiss Cox during a particular, relevant period of time.

“It is important to note that at the time he was apparently given and using the MN AG email account, there is no public indication Professor Cox was employed by the AG’s office,” continued Hardin. “Transparency serves and supports good government. Minnesotans deserve to know how and where their tax dollars are being used at the AG’s office and to what end.”

What’s next

Ellison’s Office must answer the Complaint within 30 days. After briefing and argument, the Court will rule on any discovery and make an ultimate decision on releasing these records.

Minnesota AG climate change lawsuit background

  • The MN AG’s office filed suit against the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobil Oil Corporation, Koch Industries, Inc., Flint Hills Resources LP, and Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend on June 24, 2020 for supposed climate change damages caused by the companies, and disgorgement of profits, citing violations of Minnesota’s consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, and false statements in advertising statutes.
  • This is one of numerous and nearly identical lawsuits filed across the United States, differing principally in the state law invoked. These suits began in federal court, and focused on “public nuisance” claims, until that approach necessitated a change in tactics.

Earlier records requests and lawsuits filed by EPA have yielded documentation of the following:

  • The Minnesota lawsuit was imported to the Office of the Attorney General by the Rockefeller Family Fund out of New York City using Minnesota-based intermediary-activists and University professors as fronts to give the lawsuit a local patina.
  • RFF arranged for “[L]awyers advising Rockefeller family fund,” the Center for Climate Integrity, and the Minnesota-based group Fresh Energy to deliver a memorandum outlining the desired lawsuit to the Attorney General (on University of Minnesota stationery, despite University policies seemingly prohibiting that).
  • Although Fresh Energy paid, and obscured, money to pay for this memorandum was ghost co-written by the RFF/CCI attorneys in New York, placed on University of Minnesota letterhead, the memo bore no disclosure of either that arrangement to produce this for outside parties, that it was performed for RFF, or of the non-University co-authors.
  • The MN AG office waited to file the suit until two privately-funded Special Assistant Attorneys General were placed in its office – and paid for by Bloomberg Philanthropies – for the purpose of bringing energy-related lawsuits. Those privately hired lawyers then filed the suit for Ellison, as others provided to AGs have filed similar suits in other states.