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July 13 — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, took the unprecedented step July 13 of subpoenaing two acting state attorneys general for access to records concerning ongoing investigations into whether fossil fuel companies knowingly misled investors on the dangers of climate change.
Flanked by five other committee Republicans, Smith said he was confident “any court” would uphold the legality of the subpoenas to the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general and accused them of a “blatant effort to silence free speech.”
“It is necessary for the committee to issue subpoenas in order for the American people to understand the negative impacts of the actions of the attorneys general,” Smith said at a press conference. “What are they hiding? And why?”
The Texas Republican also said he would subpoena nine other organizations: the Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Accountability Institute, Climate Reality Project, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Greenpeace, 350.org, the Global Warming Legal Action Project and the Pawa Law Group.
Groups must respond by July 27. The committee declined to make public the subpoenas because some had not yet been served.
In March, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey were among 20 top state law enforcement officials to pledge to investigate whether fossil fuel companies misled investors and the public about the risks climate change posed to their businesses.
Spokesmen for both attorneys general said the investigations seek to discover whether Exxon Mobil Corp. and other companies committed fraud and did not infringe on anyone's First Amendment rights.
“Chairman Smith and his allies have zero credibility on this issue, and are either unwilling or unable to grasp that the singular purpose of these investigations is to determine whether Exxon committed serious violations of state securities fraud, business fraud and consumer fraud laws,” said Eric Soufer, a spokesman for Schneiderman. “This committee has no authority to interfere with these state law enforcement investigations, and whether they issue a subpoena or not, this Attorney General will not be intimidated or deterred from ensuring that every New Yorker receives the full protection of state laws.”
After Smith issued the subpoena, the Massachusetts attorney general's office said Smith's actions were “very troubling” and “an affront to states’ rights.”
“This isn’t a fight about the First Amendment because the First Amendment doesn’t protect false and misleading speech,” Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the office, told Bloomberg BNA in a statement. “Our office seeks only to understand what Exxon’s own scientists knew about the impact of burning fossil fuels on climate change and on Exxon’s business and assets, when they knew it, and what they told the public.”
“Congress does not have the authority to interfere with a state inquiry into whether a private company violated state laws, and we will continue to fight any and all efforts to stop our investigation,” Gonzalez said.
Four Democrats—Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), Don Beyer (Va.), Katherine Clark (Mass.) and Paul Tonko (N.Y.)—condemned Smith's decision to subpoena the groups as “plainly unconstitutional” and “unlawful.”
“The majority’s illegitimate actions set a very dangerous precedent and are one more step towards solidifying this committee’s unfortunate new reputation as a committee of witch hunts,” the Democrats said in a statement.
In separate letters released before the subpoenas were announced, the offices of the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general said they would not comply with Smith's demands, which they said exceeded the committee's jurisdiction and knowingly mischaracterized their investigations.
“We sincerely hope that a conversation with majority and minority staff will lead to a better understanding of the [attorney general's] constitutional role and the need to insulate its investigations from unconstitutional interference by a House committee,” Leslie Dubeck, counsel to the New York attorney general, wrote.
Two of the environmental groups targeted by subpoenas—Greenpeace USA and 350.org—called Smith's demands “impermissibly vague, overbroad and burdensome,” outside the committee's jurisdiction and in violation of their First Amendment rights. They said they would not comply.
“Based on the partisan tone of the July 6th letter, we are concerned that the true purpose of the Committee’s requests is not to examine the science of climate change, but rather to silence those who would shine a spotlight on the role of the fossil fuel industry, and ExxonMobil in particular, in undermining climate science and blocking and delaying meaningful action on climate change,” the groups wrote.
To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at firstname.lastname@example.org
A copy of the July 13 letter from the New York Attorney General's office is available at http://src.bna.com/gKV.
A copy of the July 13 letter from the Massachusetts Attorney General's office is available at http://src.bna.com/gKP.
A copy of the July 13 letter from the environmental groups is available at http://bit.ly/29DQdhW.
Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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