Our Opinion: Email ruling exposes 'think tank' motivations

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We applaud a recent ruling by the Vermont Supreme Court ordering former Attorney General Bill Sorrell to turn over private emails that may contain conversations related to any of his duties as the state's top law enforcement officer.

You might recall that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating whether Exxon Mobil misled the company's investors and the public about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change. Schneiderman has since been accused by the fossil fuel industry and "think tanks" funded by extraction industries of conducting a politically motivated investigation.

One of those "think tanks," the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, claims Sorrell was working with Schneiderman and other attorneys general to investigate the oil giant, effectively chilling free speech. EELI is on a fishing expedition, hoping to uncover information to prove that Sorrell conspired with Schneiderman to conduct the investigation.

"There were several states attorneys general that decided to investigate people who didn't agree with their opinion of how global warming works," Institute attorney Matthew Hardin told The Associated Press. "So we decided to file these public records requests to see what is going on in Vermont and why they are investigating political opponents for things that are not violations of criminal law."

"Mr. Sorrell was co-ringleader, along with New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in a 'climate-RICO' scandal and the records we seek are essential in determining the level of his involvement and to what extent, if any, he may have violated the law," the group noted in a recent press release. RICO is the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which is frequently used to prosecute organized crime.

Schneiderman's spokeswoman, Amy Spitalnick, said this is just the latest effort "to distract negative attention from the fossil fuel companies who fund E&E's endless stream of baseless litigation against independent public prosecutors."

The request from EELI for the emails is couched in all sorts of high-minded jargon about freedom of information, but as the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute's tactics amount to nothing more than harassment of climate scientists. In other words, EELI is calling the kettle black when it accuses Schneiderman of attempting "to chill free speech."

To buttress our conclusion, let's take a deeper look at EELI, which, according to the Institute for Southern Studies, has "connections with the Koch brothers, Art Pope and other conservative donors seeking to expand their political influence." At one time, since purged from its website, EELI stated that it "is part of a broader network of groups with close ties to energy interests that have long fought greenhouse gas regulation."

EELI has gone under other names in its past — American Tradition Institute, American Tradition Partnership and the Western Tradition Partnership — and, according to DeSmog Blog, it was "associated with controversy in campaign financing during the 2010 elections." According to the Huffington Post, ATP/WTP and the American Tradition Institute (whose mission was to battle "radical environmentalist junk science head on") worked to fight laws requiring the disclosure of political contributions by corporations. In 2010, the Montana Commission of Political Practices found that the Western Tradition Partnership had broken state law by failing to report its donors and spending. The Commission found that the organization solicited unlimited contributions to support candidates and then passed them through a "sham organization" called The Coalition for Energy and the Environment that ran attack ads against Democrats.

According to The Guardian, EELI's core mission is actually "discrediting climate science and dismantling environmental regulations" and is "a free-market think tank that wants the public to believe human-caused global warming is a scientific fraud" that uses tactics including "filing nuisance suits to disrupt important academic research."

"When E&E Legal doesn't get everything it asks for, it will typically file a lawsuit and take the scientist and university to court," the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch writes.

DeSmog Blog noted that in March 2015, an Arizona trial court supported the University of Arizona in denying record requests by EELI, which claimed it wanted the emails for its "transparency project," though it also openly admitted that it was seeking things to embarrass climate researchers. The scientific community supported the court ruling, but E&E Legal proceeded to appeal the decision.

It's important to note that any official business being conducted by governmental agents, such as the attorney general in this case, be conducted with the use of official channels of communication. The Vermont Supreme Court correctly noted that the state's right to know extends to private email accounts of state employees if those messages otherwise meet the state's definition of a public record. Governmental officials should be on notice following this ruling, but let's not pretend EELI's legal actions have anything to do with freedom of information. The organization has two missions — and that is to suppress the overwhelming evidence that global climate change is an anthropomorphic phenomenon, and to protect its fossil fuel funders.

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