PHOENIX (Legal Newsline) – Democrat challengers aspiring to become the top lawyers in their states have received financial boosts from Tom Steyer, a billionaire investor and environmental activist who some feel is a driving force behind the recent string of climate change lawsuits struggling to persuade judges to punish the energy industry.
For example, this year, Steyer, his wife and a business associate have pumped more than $15,000 into the campaign fund of January Contreras, a former county and state prosecutor who is challenging incumbent Arizona AG Mark Brnovich, who is seen as a champion of small business.
Steyer and wife Kat Taylor each donated the maximum $5,100 into Contreras’ fund, as did Fleur Fairman, who played a key role at Steyer’s Farallon Capital in its early days. Fairman also donated $25,000 to Steyer's NextGen Climate Action PAC in 2014.
Contreras has shown that environmental protection is a priority. If she wins November’s election, at the very least she plans to challenge the policies of the administration of President Trump, whom Steyer is trying to get impeached.
“There may be times when we have to educate the federal government about our unique landscape because no one knows Arizona likes Arizonans, but I will certainly reject the knee-jerk ‘profits before planet’ approach of today,” she wrote this April in an Earth Day op-ed.
The energy industry would certainly need to worry about a climate change lawsuit similar to those filed in several jurisdictions so far that allege oil companies have created the “public nuisance” of global warming.
The main targets of those cases have been Exxon, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell, though they have convinced federal judges in San Francisco and New York City that the lawsuits are an inappropriate attempt to ask the judiciary to regulate their business practices.
The cases have been pushed by private lawyers at Hagens Berman, which stands to make around 20% of its clients’ recovery. The firm Sher Edling also has some clients in California, and a Denver personal injury lawyer would make 20% off of Boulder’s lawsuit.
Though attorney general races haven’t been at the top of the priority list for Steyer when it comes to the staggering amount of money he’s given to candidates, over the summer the Daily Caller reported he might have coordinated with former New York AG Eric Schneiderman on an investigation into what Exxon knew about climate change and what it disclosed to investors.
The publication cited a leaked memo that said three Steyer entities – Fahr LLC, NextGen and TomKat Foundation – sought to “weaken the political influence of the oil industry by leveraging the Exxon investigation.”
It also said to engage with city attorneys – “Funding needed to develop case??” the memo says.
Energy in Depth – a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America – in June noted the timing of four donations from Steyer’s groups.
In California, officials in Marin County and the City of Imperial Beach announced their lawsuits on July 17, 2017, and Steyer’s NextGen donated $30,000 to Democratic Central Committee of Marin and $114,000 to the San Diego County Democratic Party two weeks later. Imperial Beach is in that county.
Later that year, San Francisco announced its climate lawsuit Sept. 20, and Steyer then provided a $30,000 donation for a ballot initiative supported by late Mayor Ed Lee.
And before Oakland filed its lawsuit, Steyer donated $500,000 to Oakland Promise Generation Fund and Children’s Initiative, the Daily Caller reported.
Steyer is using his money to support at least a couple of other Democrat AG candidates this year – Joshua Kaul in Wisconsin got $10,000 and Sean Shaw in Florida got $3,000.
Kaul argues that current AG Brad Schimel “puts the interests of polluters ahead of the interests of Wisconsinites,” and Shaw has made it known he plans to file lawsuits whenever he can. He told the Tampa Bay Times one such possibility is a climate change suit.
Critics of those lawsuits include the Trump Administration and 15 state attorneys general, all Republican, who have filed friend-of-the-court briefs. Democrats have been less willing to voice support for the cause, as only four Democrat AGs (New York, Washington, New Jersey and California) signed the latest amicus brief.
And only one AG has filed suit – Rhode Island’s Peter Kilmartin. But that could change, given that private lawyers are fronting the costs.
“The AG has a significant role to move us forward or backwards in the battle against climate change. I choose forward,” Contreras tweeted this week.
A recent report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute says special interests are using state AGs to pursue their own climate policies.
Donors have been coordinating meetings between plaintiffs lawyers and AGs, CEI says. It has been previously reported that the New York University School of Law, through a nearly $6 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, is sending special environmental prosecutors to the offices of 10 state attorneys general – all Democrats.
“This is the most dangerous example of a modus operandi we have found: it uses nonprofit organizations as pass-through entities by which donors can support elected officials to, in turn, use their offices to advance a specific set of policies favored by said donors,” CEI’s report says.
“It also uses resources that legislatures will not provide and that donors cannot legally provide directly.”
From Legal Newsline: Reach editor John O’Brien at email@example.com.