Quantcast
Climate

Exxon, First Amendment Doesn’t Give You Right to Commit Fraud

With several state attorneys general now investigating whether ExxonMobil misled its shareholders and the public about climate change risks, it was more than a little ironic when the company recently cried foul.

“Collaboration, collusion, conspiracy,” charged ExxonMobil Media Relations manager Alan Jeffers, “pick a word.”

Pick a word? How about nonsense? If anyone could be accused of collusion and conspiracy, it’s ExxonMobil. But more on that later.

Al Gore joined New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (center) at a news conference announcing more AGs will investigate ExxonMobil for fraud.

What prompted Jeffers’ ludicrous allegation was a meeting that took place on March 29. My colleague Peter Frumhoff, lead climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Environmental Attorney Matt Pawa briefed a handful of state attorneys general, including New York’s Eric Schneiderman, who launched an investigation of ExxonMobil last November. Later that day, Schneiderman and 16 other attorneys general joined former Vice President Al Gore at a press conference to declare their support for more aggressive government action on climate change. During the event, Attorney Generals from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Massachusetts announced that they, too, would initiate investigations of ExxonMobil.

On April 15, Reuters broke the story that Frumhoff and Pawa had met behind closed doors with the state prosecutors before the press conference. The news organization had obtained emails disclosing the meeting through an open records request filed by a group called the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal).

“The previously unknown level of coordination with outside advisers offered a glimpse behind the scenes in an increasingly pitched battle between Exxon and environmental groups,” Reuters reported. “Exxon has said it has been unfairly singled out and that climate activists are conspiring to rally public opinion against it.”

Unfortunately, not only did the Reuters story fail to adequately identify E&E Legal, it also mischaracterized what amounted to a routine meeting in an ongoing legal investigation.

Confidentiality is Standard Operating Procedure

Reuters described E&E Legal, a small, three-person nonprofit, as a “free-market think tank with ties to the Competitive Enterprise Institute [CEI], whose website says it opposes U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.” What it didn’t mention is that E&E Legal—which could hardly be called a think tank—is at least partly funded by the coal industry and has repeatedly harassed prominent climate scientists, including Katharine Hayhoe and Michael Mann, by filing intrusive open records requests that have tied them up for weeks and wasted hundreds of thousands of public university dollars.

What’s more, the story didn’t explain that the group’s connection with CEI is through CEI staff attorney Chris Horner, who handles E&E Legal’s open records filings. CEI has been peddling lies about climate science on behalf of fossil fuel interests for decades and Horner is associated with other climate science denier groups as well as the coal industry, a relationship that was recently revealed by coal company bankruptcy filings.

More important, Reuters failed to clarify that the attorneys general were merely doing their jobs. By their very nature, legal investigations can entail gathering information privately from a wide variety of sources.

This is a key point. State attorneys general have the authority to meet with anyone they choose—be it a scientist, an environmental lawyer or a corporate official—in the course of an investigation on a confidential basis. In other words, there was no hint of collusion or conspiracy. Meeting privately with experts is part of the legal discovery process. Moreover, in New York—under the state’s Martin Act—the attorney general can initiate a completely confidential investigation of potentially fraudulent practices.

But that didn’t stop FoxNews.com, the Daily Caller, the Washington Examiner and the Washington Times—the climate science denial echo chamber—from providing ExxonMobil and E&E Legal a platform to make bogus charges about “collusion” and “conspiracy” in subsequent stories.

ExxonMobil’s Disinformation Network

Schneiderman’s investigation—and one launched in January by California’s attorney general—followed the release of documents by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and reporters at InsideClimate News and Columbia Journalism School revealing that Exxon scientists conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago and warned top management of the potentially catastrophic risks posed by global warming. Schneiderman’s staff is now reviewing the company’s statements to investors regarding those risks to see if they contradicted what it was hearing from its own scientists.

The New York Attorney Generals office also is taking a close look at ExxonMobil’s support for a network of think tanks and advocacy groups that has been spreading disinformation about climate science for nearly 20 years. Here is where questions about “collusion” and “conspiracy” come into play.

That network was exposed back in 2007 when UCS documented that ExxonMobil had spent at least $16 million between 1998 and 2005 on more than 40 climate science denier groups. The group that got the most money? CEI, which received more than $2 million. Despite the fact that it had no scientists on its staff, CEI established itself as the go-to group to provide “the other side” of a manufactured scientific debate. It is perhaps best remembered for reassuring Americans that global warming is nothing to worry about in a TV commercial extolling the virtues of carbon dioxide. The spot’s unforgettable tag line: “They call it pollution. We call it life.”

ExxonMobil publicly ended its direct support for CEI in 2005, but the company continues to spend millions of dollars annually on denier groups and congressional climate science denier political campaigns. CEI, meanwhile, may have lost ExxonMobil as a benefactor, but according to the most recent available tax records, it is still receiving money from billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, co-owner of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries.

In any case, it is difficult to determine just where CEI gets its funding these days. Much of it comes from a secretive, pass-through foundation called Donors Trust and its affiliate Donors Capital Fund. Since 2002, the intertwined funds have laundered more than $457 million from anonymous corporations, foundations and individuals and distributed that money to hundreds of anti-regulation groups, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute and, of course, CEI.

The First Amendment Doesn’t Protect Fraud

As one of ExxonMobil’s top climate science denier grantees, CEI now finds itself in the hot seat. U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker not only launched an investigation of ExxonMobil for defrauding investors and the general public, he also subpoenaed communications between ExxonMobil and many of its denier network groups. He specifically asked CEI for all its climate change and energy policy materials, as well as its donor lists, over a 10-year period beginning in 1997.

CEI has filed to quash the subpoena and pushed back in an April 23 op-ed in the Washington Post. CEI President Kent Lassman and his general counsel, Sam Kazman, insisted that their organization and ExxonMobil are being unfairly harassed for exercising their First Amendment rights. A week later, the Wall Street Journal editorial board chimed in, calling Walker’s subpoena of CEI documents “a form of harassment” and “a dangerous turn for free speech.”

Of course, the real issue is not CEI’s or ExxonMobil’s First Amendment rights. CEI, which has been exercising its right to mislead the public about climate change for quite some time, is being investigated to determine the extent to which it functioned as ExxonMobil’s paid surrogate. ExxonMobil, meanwhile, is being investigated to ascertain if it is guilty of fraud. And, as Attorney General Schneiderman has noted, “The First Amendment, ladies and gentlemen, doesn’t give you the right to commit fraud.”

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Animals
An adult bush dog, part of a captive breeding program. Hudson Garcia

A Rescue Dog Is Now Helping to Save Other (Much Wilder) Dogs

By Jason Bittel

Formidable predators stalk the forests between Panama and northern Argentina. They are sometimes heard but never seen. They are small but feisty and have even been documented trying to take down a tapir, which can top out at nearly 400 pounds. Chupacabras? No.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
RoNeDya / iStock / Getty Images

What Is Mead, and Is It Good for You?

By Ansley Hill, RD, LD

Mead is a fermented beverage traditionally made from honey, water and a yeast or bacterial culture.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
U.S. Army member helps clear debris from Tyndall Air Force Base following Hurricane Michael. U.S. Army

Pentagon: Climate Change Is Real and a 'National Security Issue'

The Pentagon released a Congressionally mandated report (pdf) that warns flooding, drought and wildfires and other effects of climate change puts U.S. military bases at risk.

The 22-page analysis states plainly: "The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense (DoD or the Department) missions, operational plans, and installations."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Protesters interrupt the confirmation hearing for Andrew Wheeler on Capitol Hill Jan. 16 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

5 People Calling Out EPA Acting Head Wheeler for Putting Polluters First

This week, people across the country are joining environmental leaders to speak out against the nomination of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to lead the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Scott Pruitt's hand-picked successor, Wheeler has continued to put polluters over people, most recently by using the last of his agency's funding before it expired in the government shutdown to announce plans to allow power plants to spew toxic mercury and other hazardous pollution into the air.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Great white shark. Elias Levy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Marine Biologists Raise Flags About Viral Great White Shark Encounter

By now you might have seen Ocean Ramsey's rare and jaw-dropping encounter with a great white shark in waters near Oahu, Hawaii.

Ramsey, a marine biologist, said on the TODAY Show that it was "absolutely breathtaking and heart-melting" to be approached by the massive marine mammal.

Keep reading... Show less
A tree found severed in half in an act of vandalism in Joshua Tree National Park. Gina Ferazzi / Los AngelesTimes / Getty Images

Wall Before Country Takes Mounting Toll on Americans Everywhere

By Rhea Suh

One month on, the longest and most senseless U.S. government shutdown in history is taking a grave and growing toll on the environment and public health.

Food inspectors have been idled or are working without pay, increasing the risk we'll get sick from eating produce, meat and poultry that isn't properly checked. National parks and public wilderness lands are overrun by vandals, overtaken by off-road joyriders, and overflowing with trash. Federal testing of air and water quality, as well as monitoring of pollution levels from factories, incinerators and other sources, is on hold or sharply curtailed. Citizen input on critical environmental issues is being hindered. Vital research and data collection are being sidelined.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
The W. A. Parish Power Plant, owned by NRG Energy, is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Roy Luck / CC BY 2.0

All Coal-Fired Power Plants in Texas Found Leaking Toxins Into Groundwater

Power plants across Texas are leaching toxins into groundwater, according to new research. A report released this week from the Environmental Integrity Project found that all of the state's 16 coal-fired power plants are leaching contaminants from coal ash into the ground, and almost none of the plants are properly lining their pits to prevent leakage.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. NPS

MLK National Park to Re-Open Despite Shutdown, Thanks to Delta

Hats off to Delta Air Lines. The company's charitable arm awarded the National Park Service an $83,500 grant to help reopen the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta from Jan. 19 through Feb. 3 in honor of Dr. King's legacy.

The Atlanta-based airline was inspired to act after learning that some of the park's sites, including Dr. King's birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Fire Station No. 6 and the visitor center, were closed due to the partial government shutdown, now on its 28th day, according to LinkedIn post from Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!