House Science Chair Renews Fight With NY, Mass. AGs Over Exxon Probes

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House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) on Thursday issued new subpoenas to the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts seeking documents related to their probes into ExxonMobil, reinvigorating the panel’s investigation into those states’ efforts.

But it looks like the stalemate between Smith and the attorneys general will continue, as both officials plan to ignore the chairman’s demands for information on their efforts to determine whether Exxon misled investors regarding climate change.

In letters sent to the attorneys general, Smith wrote that they “continued to obstruct legitimate congressional oversight with your refusal to comply” with subpoenas he’d issued in July. Smith re-issued the subpoenas on Thursday in order for them to be effective for the new Congress, but these new subpoenas are narrower in focus.

“After protracted negotiations with the AGs during 2016, the Chairman was forced to issue subpoenas seeking documents and information related to the depth and breadth of the AGs’ actions related to climate change and fossil fuels. The Committee is concerned that the AGs’ actions may have an effect on our nation’s scientific research and development (R&D) in this area,” committee spokeswoman Kristina Baum said in a statement.

Smith, a noted climate change denier, began his crusade against the officials investigating Exxon last year with a counter-probe that targeted 17 state attorney generals and several environmental activist groups. He charged that the state officials had embarked on an “unprecedented effort against those who have questioned the causes, magnitude, or best ways to address climate change.”

After officials refused to hand over documents related to their probes voluntarily, Smith issued subpoenas in July targeting New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. But the two refused to comply, arguing that the investigation was outside of the House Science Committee’s purview and that it infringed on states’ rights. Environmental groups also refused to comply with subpoenas from the panel.

Months later, and with a Republican President in the White House, Smith has issued new subpoenas to the attorneys general that are narrower in focus than the round he issued last year.

Smith previously demanded that the attorneys general hand over communications with a list of environmental groups, other state attorneys’ general offices and the federal government about the “investigation or potential prosecution of companies, nonprofit organizations, scientists, or other individuals related to the issue of climate change.”

In the subpoenas issued Thursday, Smith named specific individuals associated with the previously listed environmental groups, as well as lawyers and staffers at state attorneys’ general offices. Those named in the subpoenas included prominent environmental activists Al Gore and Tom Steyer.

The chairman was more specific about his inquiry this time around, asking for communications “referring or relating to climate change, environmental scientific research, and/or the Clean Power Plan.” He also asked for communications with the federal government about any investigations.

In addition to those requests, Smith demanded documents about the Attorneys General Climate Change Coalition and AGs United for Clean Power, a group of state attorneys general formed by Al Gore and Schneiderman. Smith also asked for documents related to events at which state attorneys general were present, and for communications about the Climate Change Conference Common Interest Agreement, a pact signed by states who decided to investigate Exxon.

Smith believes that the attorneys general and environmental activist groups worked together for political reasons.

“The Committee is concerned that these efforts to silence speech are based on political theater rather than legal or scientific arguments, and that they run counter to an attorney general’s duty to serve ‘as the guardian of the legal rights of the citizens’ and to ‘assert, protect, and defend the rights of the people,'” he wrote in a May letter.

Both attorneys’ general offices said that they will continue to refuse to comply with the committee’s demands.

“With Exxon’s former CEO — a key figure in Attorney General Schneiderman’s fraud investigation — now serving as President Trump’s Secretary of State, we’re not surprised that Exxon’s lobbyists were able to buy another flimsy House subpoena,” Scheiderman spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said Friday in a statement to TPM. “Lamar Smith’s only interest is protecting his donors at Exxon from multiple federal and state fraud investigations. Attorney General Schneiderman’s investigation will not be deterred.”

Chloe Gotsis, a spokeswoman for Healey, told the Boston Globe that the “office does not intend to comply or yield to further harassment” from the House Science Committee.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the committee’s ranking member who has long criticized Smith’s targeting of the state attorneys general, slammed the chairman for re-issuing the subpoenas

“These misguided subpoenas, as I have said in the past, are symbolic of the Majority’s anti-science agenda and their efforts to shield oil, gas, and mining interests, such as ExxonMobil, from legitimate oversight and public accountability. The Chairman’s continued war on science will not stop climate change and it will not silence climate scientists, whether they are in the private sector or working in federal agencies,” Johnson said in a statement.

“The subpoenas issued by the Majority today are clearly an effort to derail appropriate law enforcement actions of State Attorneys General who are investigating potential acts of fraud by ExxonMobil against their shareholders,” she continued. “These politically motivated actions undermine legitimate Congressional oversight authority and further diminish the reputation of the Science Committee.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Caitlin MacNeal is a News Writer based in Washington, D.C. Before joining TPM, Caitlin interned and wrote for the Huffington Post, the Sunlight Foundation and Slate. She is a graduate of Georgetown University.
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