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Vermont AG sued for withholding records on possible investigation of ‘climate change deniers’

By and   /   June 16, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

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STONEWALLING?: Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell is being sued for public records related to a multi-state effort to punish and silence climate change ‘deniers.’

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont’s Attorney General is being sued for withholding public records related to a multi-state investigation of groups opposed to climate change policies.

On Monday, two nonprofit legal centers filed a lawsuit to force Attorney General William Sorrell and Assistant Attorney General Scott Kline to turn over documents from private email accounts that discuss climate change “deniers.”

The complaint, filed by attorneys for the Energy and Environment Legal Institute and Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, says a request for documents was made on May 10 but not responded to by the extended deadline of May 24 — the longest extension allowable under Vermont law.

According to the complaint, the groups seek discussions with Matt Pawa, an environmental lawyer for the Climate Accountability Institute; Lem Srolovic, chief of the New York Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Bureau; Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general; and John Passacantando, former executive director of Greenpeace USA. The requests contain keywords relating to a possible investigation being led by attorneys general of multiple states.

Records obtained from a prior request made in March show Sorrell and Kline have been working with Schneiderman, Srolovic and anti-fossil fuel activists on launching investigations into ExxonMobil and conservative think tanks generally opposed to climate change agendas.

“When we first submitted a public records request to Vermont in March, they seemed to follow the letter of that state’s freedom of information law, promptly turning over relevant documents in a very timely manner,” David Schnare, general counsel for Energy and Environment Legal Institute, said in a statement.

“The enormous fallout from those revelations has, unfortunately, been followed by slow-walking of other requests in Vermont, and state after state where their attorney general is involved in this conspiracy to stop dissent using RICO statutes.”

RELATED: Vermont AG office tight-lipped about ExxonMobil investigations workgroup

The group claims attorneys general from a coalition called AGs United for Clean Power are “facing pressure to not follow their own laws in order to keep secret public documents the public has a right to see.” The prior records reveal employees in the New York Attorney General’s Office pressured Vermont to withhold records from public disclosure, but Vermont employees initially refused on the grounds that it was against the law and could attract lawsuits.

In an interview with Watchdog, Schnare said he thinks Sorrell and Kline are covering up their interactions with environmental groups interested in advancing climate change policies and silencing opponents.

“We don’t know all that we will find once we pry loose the public records the Vermont AG should release, but we believe it will further expose the collusion among the AGs and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and an assorted group of plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“The AGs and the attorneys want to cash in on a pattern of intimidation, while the Rockefeller Brothers and the environmental groups they fund think they will benefit from their attempts to silence scientists and public interest groups that defend quality science and sensible regulation.”

Representatives from the Vermont Office of Attorney General did not return Watchdog’s request for comment.

On March 29, attorneys general from 15 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands met at a climate change conference in New York and announced a coalition called AGs United for Clean Power. The meeting, co-sponsored by Schneiderman and Sorrell, revealed that the attorneys are collaborating to investigate whether fossil fuel companies have misled investors and the public about climate change.

Schnare said the investigations amount to an attack on constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and free association for leaders from ExxonMobil and various think tanks.

“By squelching the speech of those who disagree with you, you win. That’s a terrible goal for the academy, for those engaged in legitimate debate on public issues, and more fundamentally, for those who both defend and depend on our Constitution,” he said.

“Since the days of McCarthyism, the courts have rejected the notion that the right to associate is open to limitation. By making it a crime to associate with others to discuss issues of the day, or otherwise promote issues and positions on important issues of the day, one destroys the private discussions that can result in new knowledge, breakthroughs in science and, of course, shifts in political action.”

Schnare claims that even “liberal attorneys” find the use of racketeering laws in this situation unconstitutional and “unworthy of a competent attorney general.”

He took a swipe at Vermont’s government, claiming it is not being a leader but “a follower,” and added that Sorrell’s collusion with environmental groups would likely be prosecutable under the same RICO laws the AGs United for Clean Power seek to use against political opponents.

“Aren’t you part of a legal conspiracy to harm the constitutional rights of others, making you subject to RICO?” he said, posing a question for Sorrell.

The case is currently pending in Washington Superior Court.

Contact Michael Bielawski at [email protected]

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Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. A Seton Hall 2005 graduate, Bielawski has been writing articles for various publications in and around New York City; Seoul, South Korea; and Vermont. He’s a writer for the Hardwick Gazette, keeping track of rising school budgets and rural Vermont issues. He likes to write about energy and the environment, looking for angles not seen in mainstream media. At home, he’s busy looking after two little boys. During free time, he loves to watch Stanley Kubrick films on Netflix.