Several Republican state attorneys general have recently welcomed special assistant attorneys general to work in their offices funded by a conservative group with the explicit agreement to investigate and prosecute organizations that oppose their policy goals.
Give it a minute and a few tweets. Cue the outrage. Ethicists and lawyers fill the airwaves explaining why it is highly unethical and if not illegal, certainly has a serious optics problem.
While the opening line is (thankfully) not true, it is unfortunately exactly what is being done to push a climate-change agenda through the attorneys general offices in the states.
In fact, the effort was announced to great fanfare; The Washington Post reported, “NYU School of Law will launch a new center, financed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, aimed at helping state attorneys general fight any federal moves to roll back renewable energy, environmental protections and climate policies.”
That was in August 2017; a year later, its mission has apparently expanded. In October, the New York AG office announced a lawsuit against Exxon for allegedly misleading its investors. One of the attorneys that signed the case is Special Assistant Attorney General Matthew Eisenson – a lawyer paid by the NYU State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. Mr. Eisenson and his cohorts can be found in at least seven state AG offices.
The issue arises when you follow the money: The SAAGs are funded by the NYU Center which is ultimately funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies – a private foundation established by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg that is “driving strong, measurable and local action on climate change. Bloomberg is an environmental advocate and he contributes to the discussion in many positive ways. However, the Bloomberg Philanthropies-NYU-SAAG relationship is one avenue that should be reconsidered.
A recent report documented the relationship between Bloomberg Philanthropies, NYU and state AG offices that is riddled with conflicts of interest. Here’s how it works: A state AG office applies to the NYU Center to get additional legal support, stating that the office’s climate and environmental work could not be done but for the NYU Center funding. The NYU Center, which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, hires lawyers and pays their salaries. The lawyers then work in state AG offices as SAAGs, even though they remain employees of the NYU Center.
Certainly, many state AG offices utilize external resources. They may retain outside counsel and experts from time to time. However, the key is that those resources are paid for and controlled exclusively by those AGs using taxpayer funds.
And, it is perfectly appropriate to ask a state AG office to champion a certain cause or to look into alleged wrongdoing. However, it is another thing entirely to develop an opaque third-party payment scheme to get an AG office to carry out a group’s stated policy agenda. Just as there is no free lunch in life, there’s no free legal support under this NYU scheme. Instead, these lawyers are paid, and are subject to influence by, special interests to pursue specific policy goals.
In fact, under the agreements in question the state AG office must regularly report back to the NYU Center on the activities of the SAAG and must “collaborate” with the Center on public announcements relating to environmental issues the SAAG worked on. This exposes the heart of the problem. The NYU scheme allows climate activists to carry out their agenda under the authority of state governments, with zero transparency into who is paying for what.
As a former AG for the state of Alabama, I find this kind of arrangement very troubling. And I’m not alone in this discomfort. According to the report, even the attorney general for Oregon – whose office also has a SAAG in its midst – deliberated with colleagues about the scheme, stating in an email: “We need to be sure we are prepared to explain his position to the media, who, no doubt, will be interested. (Because he is being paid by an outside entity—which is quite unusual I think).”
The Office of the Legislative Counsel in Oregon was even more uncomfortable, writing in September 2018 that, “[t]his arrangement does not comply” with Oregon statute.
Some states are beginning to root out this rot. Earlier this year, Alabama’s governor signed an executive order to clearly ban the practice of “loaned executives” who work in state government but are paid by private parties. It is time for other states to consider similar measures to prevent activists from infiltrating government offices to advance their own causes.
The Office of the Legislative Counsel in Oregon closed its letter stating, “We hope this is helpful.” I’d say it is because of the light it shines on the situation. There are many avenues through which to advocate for climate-change policies, but this one should be put to an end because of its ethical and potential legal problems.
If it’s not, then prepare to see a proliferation of foundations supported by special interests to adopt the same strategy for working with state attorneys general. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, that won’t be good for the administration of justice.
Luther Strange is a former U.S. Senator from Alabama and served as the state’s attorney general from 2011 to 2017. He is a senior adviser for Patomak Global Partners and provides legal counsel through Luther Strange & Associates, LLC.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.