State officials in New York and Vermont strategized on how to avoid disclosing public documents relating to an investigation of ExxonMobil, according to newly released emails. The correspondence, first covered by Reuters, also shows the New York Office of the Attorney General instructing an environmental activist not to reveal details of a strategy meeting intended to broaden the campaign against Exxon.
Participants at the meeting included attorneys general from New York, Vermont, and 11 other states, as well as environmental lawyer Matthew Pawa and Peter Frumhoff from the Union of Concerned Scientists. According to other internal correspondence, participants in the meeting would coordinate talking points related to their current or future climate-related investigations, ahead of their press conference with Al Gore on March 29, 2016.
‘Okay with Refusing to Disclose’
In an email to Lem Srolovic with the New York Attorney General’s office, Vermont Assistant Attorney General Scott Kline expressed concerns about sharing documents related to the meeting, as they could be discoverable by public records requests. Nonetheless, Kline said “our office is okay with refusing to disclose covered documents,” assuming that doing so could be considered legal.
Members of the New York Attorney General’s office had requested a “Common Interest Agreement” to establish policies for sharing documents internally, as well as advice on how to avoid public disclosure.
In section 5 of the draft agreement, the parties would agree that if they were served with a public records request, they would “refuse to disclose any Shared Information unless otherwise required by law.” The agreement also dictated that anyone forced to disclose information related to the campaign must “immediately notify” other signatories.
The attempt to avoid disclosure came just three years after New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman expanded the disclosure requirements for nonprofits engaged in what he called “electioneering.” Schneiderman said the new rules, which were unveiled in 2013, were based on his concerns that certain groups were trying to “hide who has bankrolled” their activities.
Stonewall the Press
In addition to trying to keep details of the strategy hidden from the public, other emails show government officials directing meeting participants not to discuss the campaign with reporters.
In late March, the Wall Street Journal reached out to Pawa, the environmental lawyer who has long advocated for government investigations of fossil fuel companies, about his role with the attorneys general. But Pawa was unsure how to respond. On March 30, Pawa sent an email to Srolovic with the New York Attorney General’s office, as well as Kline in the Vermont Attorney General’s office, explaining that “a WSJ reporter wants to talk to me. I may not even talk to her at all but if I do I obviously will have no comment on anything discussed at the meeting.”
Pawa then asked, “What should I say if she asks if I attended? No comment? Let me know.”
Srolovic responded that Pawa should effectively stonewall the WSJ reporter. “My ask is if you speak to the reporter,” Srolovic said, “to not confirm that you attended or otherwise discuss the event.”
The emails show arguably the clearest examples yet of how environmental activists leading the #ExxonKnew campaign have worked with – and even at the direction of – New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who opened his investigation against Exxon last November. The revelation also comes as questions continue to mount about the role environmental activists played in a government-led investigation of an American energy company and a libertarian think tank.
A separate meeting, held in January in the New York City office of the Rockefeller Family Fund, included a number of prominent environmentalists, including 350.org founder Bill McKibben and Kenny Bruno, a former member of the Greenpeace board of directors. An internal memo published last week revealed that their goal was to map out how to “delegitimize” ExxonMobil as a “political actor.”
Details of the memo were first published by the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal also noted that the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund are financial supporters of InsideClimate News and the Columbia School of Journalism, the organizations whose claims about Exxon last fall launched the #ExxonKnew campaign on social media.
Previous statements by the Rockefeller Family Fund and the organizations it supports have suggested that the campaign was motivated by political considerations.
Earlier this year, Lee Wasserman, the director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, told Reuters that his organization has funded groups like InsideClimate News and the Columbia School of Journalism in order to push what he called “better climate policy.” Rockefeller-aligned funds have financially backed a who’s who of environmental activist groups, including the Sierra Club and 350.org, the latter of which operates the official #ExxonKnew campaign website.
Kenny Bruno, who attended the January strategy meeting and is a former board member of the Rockefeller-backed group Greenpeace, tweeted last month that his goal is not to “abolish Exxon,” but rather to “reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
I don’t want to abolish Exxon. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.
— Kenny Bruno (@greenwashbuster) March 30, 2016
Both InsideClimate News and Columbia have denied that the funding they receive from the Rockefellers has any influence over their coverage. But various reports have suggested InsideClimate News has a cozy relationship with environmental groups, and may even be a public relations front.
The coordinated attempt by the offices of the New York and Vermont attorneys general to avoid disclosure also comes in the wake of revelations that the Columbia School of Journalism – whose reports helped launch the #ExxonKnew campaign – initially refused to disclose its donors.
In December, the Columbia Journalism Review – a highly-respected media watchdog – pointed out that there was “no explicit mention of the philanthropic organizations providing financial support” for the Columbia team’s reports on Exxon, as published in the Los Angeles Times. The information was added later, but only after Energy In Depth and others exposed how the Rockefellers and other anti-fossil fuel groups were major financial backers of Columbia’s work.
The Columbia team’s editor, Susanne Rust, claimed the lack of disclosure was because the project “didn’t even have a website” until October 9, 2015, or nearly a month after their first story was published.
An Energy In Depth review of the Internet Archive showed that Rust’s claims were not true, as the project had a website – without any disclosure of its funders – at least as early as September 8, 2015.