Post calls Cuccinelli's climate probe 'witch hunt'

Jessica M. Karmasek Mar. 12, 2012, 3:15pm


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The Washington Post, in a staff editorial published over the weekend, equated Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's probe of a former University of Virginia professor's climate research to a "witch hunt."

The Post called the investigation "a costly episode of government overreach that is finally over."

Earlier this month, the Virginia Supreme Court sided with the UVA, affirming the judgment of the Albemarle County Circuit Court, which had set aside Cuccinelli's civil investigative demands.

However, unlike the circuit court, the Supreme Court set aside the CIDs with prejudice, on the ground that the university, as an agency of the Commonwealth, does not constitute a "person" under the state's Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.

Therefore, it cannot be the proper subject of such a demand, the Court said.

Cuccinelli, citing the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, was investigating whether former UVA professor Michael Mann used fraudulent data to obtain government grants.

Albemarle Circuit Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. had set aside the attorney general's original civil investigative demand issued against the university in August 2010.

However, Cuccinelli submitted a narrower demand, seeking information on one $214,700 grant issued by UVA to Mann and two other researchers.

The university, in turn, asked the court to set aside the latest demand, which targeted "the same professor on the same grounds that the court already found insufficient," it argued.

In September, Albemarle Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins put the case on hold, saying she would not rule on the attorney general's scaled-down demand.

Instead, she said she had to wait for the Supreme Court -- which at that point had already agreed to review -- to hear the case.

Mann, an assistant professor of environmental sciences at UVA from 1999 to 2005, is known for his research on global warming. He now teaches at Pennsylvania State University.

It was Mann who produced the widely publicized "hockey stick" graph showing a sharp increase in global average temperatures in the industrial age.

His work was called into question in the investigations into the so-called "Climategate" scandal following the unauthorized release of hundreds of emails from a British climate center.

However, several investigations, including an extensive review of his research by Penn State, have cleared him of academic misconduct.

Now that the case is over, what's left, the Post says, is a "range of consequences that can only hurt the Commonwealth."

The newspaper's staff points to the $600,000 UVA had to raise for legal fees, and the public resources of the Attorney General's Office that Cuccinelli wasted.

Scientists in Virginia also will be forced to wonder whether they will be similarly scrutinized for research state officials don't agree with, the Post says.

And thanks to the Supreme Court's March 2 ruling, the attorney general's power has been "clipped," the newspaper says.

"None of this is UVA's fault," the Post staff wrote.

"The university deserves credit for guarding the independence of its faculty. Rather, it's squarely the doing of Mr. Cuccinelli and his witch hunt."

Consistent with the Court's opinion, the Attorney General's Office has said it will move to dismiss the CID case still pending in the Albemarle Circuit Court.

"From the beginning, we have said that we were simply trying to review documents that are unquestionably state property to determine whether or not fraud had been committed," said Cuccinelli, who is running for governor in 2013.

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