In an effort to undermine the First Amendment by trying to criminalize political disagreement, chief legal officials from across the country are currently investigating individuals, groups, and businesses that challenge their views on climate change. But this campaign has hit a bit of a headwind recently as some of the targets of the probe are fighting back. In doing so, they have exposed an undercurrent of hypocrisy in this effort to intimidate those with whom they disagree.
Earlier this year, a group of 17 attorneys general — working in direct communication with environmental organizations — launched a campaign to silence many public policy organizations and even individuals for their work challenging liberal views on climate change, as well as private companies like Exxon Mobil. Let’s put aside the fact this probe was both unconstitutional and unethical. More disturbing is how these same attorneys general — the ones who issued subpoenas, demanded documents, and bullied Exxon, over 100 universities, researchers and public policy organizations — are actively blocking ethics watchdog organizations like mine from further exposing their behavior.
In May, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust filed public records requests with the offices of the 17 attorneys general, who have formed a group called the Attorneys General United for Clean Power Coalition, seeking all documents and communications related to their activities related to this probe. On June 30, we received a letter from the New Mexico’s AG office denying our request for information citing that they had entered into a “common interest” agreement with the other AGs. In other words, the New Mexico AG wanted to play the “do as I say, not as I do” game when it comes to transparency.
Shortly after receiving this letter, it was reported that the Energy and Environment Legal Institute had uncovered documents showing that these AGs had indeed conspired to block FOIA requests into their nefarious activities. As EELI senior fellow Chris Horner correctly and ironically pointed out in a statement: “… in short, these activist AGs are trying to write themselves out from freedom of information laws their legislatures have written them into.”
Fortunately, this “investigation” and outright assault on the First Amendment is falling apart faster than a house of cards in a gale wind. U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker, leader of the effort, has withdrawn subpoenas against Exxon Mobil and one of the targeted groups, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. It has also been reported that AG offices in Massachusetts and California are losing interest and are backing away from this failed campaign. The chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Lamar Smith (R-Texas) recently issued counter subpoenas to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey over their roles in this investigation. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton referred to the Virgin Islands subpoena as “unconstitutional and harassing.”
In a weak effort to defend her actions, Attorney General Healey’s office said, “The First Amendment does not protect false and misleading statements in the marketplace.” Translation: If you offer debate, a viewpoint that differs from your critics, you do so at great personal and professional peril.
This campaign is similar to a well-publicized attack by the left that occurred some two years ago. The now infamous Wisconsin John Doe investigation targeted conservative groups for allegedly improper coordination during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections of Governor Scott Walker, was rightfully shut down. This clandestine probe was marked by pre-dawn raids of people’s homes where armed law enforcement officers seized personal records and equipment and forced the victims to remain silent about their horrific ordeal or risk going to prison.
In shutting down the probe, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa said “…the larger danger is giving government an expanded role in uprooting all forms of perceived corruption which may result in corruption of the First Amendment itself. … As other histories tell us, attempts to purify the public square lead to places like the Guillotine and the Gulag.”
No truer words can be spoken then and now.
Our judicial system was created as the third branch of our government to uphold laws and see that justice prevails. It was not designed to be corrupted into a political tool, used as a weapon to persecute, intimidate and silence individuals and groups over mere differences of opinion.
FACT will continue to press its investigation into these 17 attorneys general for more information and answers regarding the true motivation and the real agenda behind this reprehensible campaign.
Matthew Whitaker is a former U.S. attorney and executive director of the ethics watchdog, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.