EID: Minnesota and Baltimore under microscope for hiring special interest climate crusaders in AG offices
MINNESOTA, D.C., AND BALTIMORE UNDER THE MICROSCOPE FOR ACCEPTING CONTROVERSIAL HELP FROM SPECIAL INTERESTS
The Minnesota Attorney General’s office is more than a thousand miles away from New York City, yet Michael Bloomberg’s money and influence are felt even there. A new lawsuit is challenging whether Minnesota AG Keith Ellison is able to accept a “Special Assistant Attorney General” from NYU School of Law’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center (SEEIC), a program created by former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg.
Doug Seaton, president of the non-profit Upper Midwest Law Center, announced the lawsuit against the Minnesota AG for hiring Pete Surdo, a fellow with the SEEIC. According to Seaton, state law requires that all salaries for lawyers working for the AG’s office be paid by the state. Surdo’s salary and benefits are paid by the SEEIC, funded by a $6 million grant from Bloomberg. As with other AG offices with Special Assistant Attorneys General from the SEEIC, their participation in the program raises concerns as to how Bloomberg’s influence could seep into the AG’s office. As Seaton noted:
“We think this is a hijacking of a public office by someone who happens to be a very wealthy political donor who has his own political agenda to pursue. We think it should be apparent to all that that’s not an appropriate thing for the AG’s office to do.”
Troublingly, however, the Minnesota AG isn’t the only official to accept “free” counsel funded by third parties with a clear agenda. Recently, new documents revealed that both Washington, D.C. and Baltimore have solicited and retained outside counsel provided by an activist group. These findings raise questions about how special interests could be guiding the agenda of these attorneys general.
Outside Influence in D.C.
A recently released document shows District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine is coordinating with and receiving lawyers from the outside activist group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Founded by Democratic donors to provide a counterbalance to the conservative oversight non-profit Judicial Watch, the group recently shifted into the partisan realm and has also criticized individuals working in the oil and gas industry, especially after holding government positions.
This move to engage with CREW follows Racine’s proposal in March to hire outside counsel on a contingency fee basis in order pursue a climate investigation against ExxonMobil, as well as his decision to bring on a Bloomberg-funded Special Assistant Attorney General from SEEIC. Taken together, this latest “Donor Agreement” document further shows the office’s welcoming attitude toward privately hired counsel – and outside influence.
According to the “Donor Agreement,” obtained by Energy Policy Advocates, attorney Robert B. McKinstry, Jr. is donating his legal services to the D.C. Attorney General “in relation to OAG’s investigation and potential lawsuit regarding the constitutionality of the actions of members of the federal government.” This suggests that McKinstry is supporting the D.C. AG’s work as it pursues a case “alleging that Mr. Trump has violated the domestic and foreign emoluments clauses of the U.S. Constitution with his hotel properties used by public officials and foreign governments.”
Given his background however, McKinstry’s donation of his services for this particular case is somewhat puzzling. According to his own website, following 31 years of work focused on climate and the environment at the law firm Ballard Spahr, McKinstry now runs his own “environmental and climate law” consulting business “focusing on the areas of environmental, climate change, and sustainability law and policy.” McKinstry directly states:
“Following my retirement from Ballard Spahr on March 31, 2018, I will continue to practice environmental law, but will focus more heavily on public interest work and consulting, particularly in the area of climate change.”
Considering this, along with AG Racine’s potential plans for an investigation into and litigation against ExxonMobil on climate disclosure, it’s unclear whether McKinstry will support the AG’s climate efforts in addition to the emoluments case – but the potential is there.
McKinstry Makes His Way to Charm City
McKinstry isn’t only assisting Washington, D.C., with pro bono services. Recently, Baltimore refused to release, again to Energy Policy Advocates, what the City described as “the correspondence between Robert B. McKinstry Jr and the City’s attorneys.” In its response, Baltimore writes:
“We assume you are seeking the agreement between the Law Department and outside counsel, which would not be disclosed because it is attorney-client communication.”
It is unclear whether this means McKinstry is among the outside counsel brought in by the City of Baltimore to pursue climate litigation, or if their relationship is something else. That said, the state of Maryland has been quite busy in this pursuit, including its Attorney General Brian Frosh who, documents obtained by Energy Policy Advocates show, is working with McKinstry, too.
Just last week a motion was filed in a lawsuit against AG Frosh asking a court to order him to release information about his office’s use of a privately-funded attorney from the SEEIC program. Even the appearance that a billionaire can use his money and power to influence a state attorney general would be concerning, as is the fact that Frosh is trying to shield his communications with this outside group from public scrutiny.
Overall, while McKinstry’s role in the climate ligations pursuits of these AGs is unclear, what is clear from these documents is that none of these parties – the D.C. AG, Maryland AG, nor the City of Baltimore – have qualms about soliciting services from outside attorneys who represent special interests rather than their constituents.
|EMBARGOED For Release Until |
August 14, 2019 10 AM CDT
|Contact: info “at” govoversight.org|
GAO Files Suit against Minnesota AG Ellison Over Refusal to Release Records re Bloomberg-Funded “Special Assistant AG”, Tort Bar Recruiting of AGs
Group Reveals Ellison as newest AG to take Bloomberg-funded prosecutor
Today the public interest law firm Government Accountability & Oversight, P.C. (GAO) filed suit against Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison under that state’s public records law. This suit, on behalf of the nonprofit group Energy Policy Advocates (EPA), seeks to compel the AG to release documents shedding light on the use of law enforcement to advance private interests.
At issue are AG Ellison’s correspondence with activists, donors and plaintiffs’ lawyers. Public records reveal a campaign to use Attorneys General offices to advance those parties’ financial and ideological pursuits. EPA requested OAG provide copies of certain emails of Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson with or relating to outside parties including the lead plaintiffs’ law firm recruiting litigants to sue energy companies in the name of “climate change”.
In recent years the tort bar has recruited state and local governments as plaintiffs. As their litigation faltered, some plaintiffs’ lawyers sought “a single sympathetic attorney general” to subpoena private records and provide a much needed boost to their stalled efforts. After that, billionaire activist and major Democratic Party donor Michael Bloomberg created a group to recruit and privately staff AGs to support his “climate” activism. One of those AGs is Ellison.
Ellison recently brought in a privately hired attorney through Blomberg’s group revealingly called the “State Impact Center”. That group hires then places lawyers in AG offices to advance a donor’s policy concerns as “Special Assistant Attorneys General” (SAAGs), and provides other private resources and attorneys for friendly offices pursuing matters of concern to the donor.
OAG never announced – and apparently never authorized Bloomberg’s group to announce – this partnership. However, an attorney who signed yesterday’s litigation filed by OAG in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals — a Bloomberg priority — boasted on his LinkedIn profile to being “embedded with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office as an Environmental Litigator and Special Assistant Attorney General”. Like the rest of this new breed of activist, he is in fact employed “as a Fellow with the NYU School of Law’s State Impact Center”.
Revelation of Ellison’s “SAAG” marks the first new addition to Bloomberg’s corps of AGs since December 2017, after something of an Omertà set in following unwanted scrutiny of the arrangements. This newfound shyness notwithstanding, private money continued flowing to underwrite more such placements. EPA’s requests also covered OAG correspondence with an employee of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office who, public records show, is coordinating recruitment of attorneys general offices for Bloomberg’s group.
Records arranging these relationships can be revealing — already Virginia’s legislature has acted to ban its AG, Mark Herring, from following through on his written promise to use his office “to advance the agenda represented by” Bloomberg’s group. GAO is in court seeking to obtain records pertaining to that breathtaking confession. Oregon’s legislative counsel has declared that the scheme violates that state’s laws. Maryland’s AG plainly violated state law in appointing its Bloomberg “SAAG” – calling him “pro bono” after setting the attorney’s (privately paid) salary at $125,000 plus benefits. GAO is also in court seeking Maryland’s unredacted “Application”.
GAO’s Chris Horner, who detailed the evidence about both the plaintiffs’ and Bloomberg’s climate schemes in his August 2018 paper “Law Enforcement for Rent”, and a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, says that
“The public deserves to see any discussions between AG Ellison’s Office and a major party-donor’s group, particularly one soliciting AGs to bring on privately funded prosecutors to advance that donor’s agenda.”
Horner adds, “Across the country, we have found attorneys general offices deeply concerned about the public learning more about the influence of plaintiffs’ lawyers and activists in using those law enforcement offices to advance a political or financial agenda. Far too often these activist AGs make the public sue to obtain public records. Add Minnesota’s AG to that list.”
EPA also requested emails reflecting the use of online storage sites such as Dropbox to conduct official business. This growing practice of public officials using off-site, private web storage raises serious concerns about compliance with public records retention requirements.
MN OAG insists that any records responsive to these requests are exempt under “a number of legal privileges, including the attorney work product, the attorney-client, and the deliberative process privileges”.
“EPA has done great work bringing transparency to Attorneys General Offices across the nation,” said Matthew Hardin, Energy Policy Advocates’ Executive Director. “Now that we’ve unfortunately been stonewalled in Minnesota, we can add one more AG’s office to the list of those who require the public to bring suit to shine the disinfectant of sunlight on these matters.”
GAO filed suit with local counsel Douglas Seaton of the Upper Midwest Law Center and James Dickey of Hellmuth & Johnson, PLLC.
Government Accountability & Oversight is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to transparency in public officials’ dealings on matters of energy, environment and law enforcement
PDF of the legal complaint: