NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) - A program placing environmental advocates in state offices - while paying their salaries - has drawn criticism, though the New York law center running it defends it as legal and transparent.
A recent Competitive Enterprise Institute report says special interests, like New York University's State Energy and Environmental Center, are pushing their agenda with these appointments, dubbed "law enforcement for rent."
The center pays for a fellowships within the attorney general offices, with 10 states believed to have signed up.
In Oregon, for example, former Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick is employed as an assistant attorney general focused on legal cases related to clean energy, climate change, and the environment, according to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum's office. This position is funded by the NYU's State Energy and Environmental Center, or State Impact Center.
This has attracted criticism from some quarters, with claims this falls into at least a legal gray area and a "mercenary use" of law enforcement offices," according to Christopher Horner, a fellow with the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute.
His report chronicles the history of, and connections between, private donors, including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and law enforcement offices, which he argues is a "mercenary use" of the latter.
In his report, Horner states, "Led and funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this scheme hires 'Research Fellows,' which it then places as activist 'Special Assistant Attorneys General.'"
Bloomberg's foundation funds the State Impact Center, but it is a normal arrangement between a donor and organization that happens across many sectors, and the former mayor has no role in its day to day running, the center states.
"Each AG office participating in the fellowship program has the authority consistent with applicable law and regulations to accept a Legal Fellow whose salary and benefits are provided by an outside funding source," Christopher Gray, the center's communications director, told Legal Newsline.
"The fellows' work responsibilities are defined by their respective AG offices, and their duty of loyalty is to the AG office in which they work."
And the attorney general offices participating in the program "have a long history and commitment to advancing progressive clean energy, climate change, and environmental issues, and they do so on behalf of the states and constituents that they represent," Gray added.
"All of this has been documented by Chris Horner and CEI in the 'report' released last month targeting the State Impact Center and numerous other environmental non-profits," Gray said.
Oregon's Attorney General's Office did not directly answer questions over its involvement in the program, but sent a press release announcing the June appointment of Novick as a special attorney general.
“Steve comes with an incredible background in environmental work. For nearly 10 years, he worked as a Trial and Senior Attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, representing the EPA in some of the most complex environmental litigation cases,” said Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
“The progress Oregon has made over the last several decades to protect and preserve our environment seems to be under attack every day. By adding one additional attorney to our team we are able to grow our environmental work, and focus more on many of the environmental issues that are so important to Oregonians.”
Those raising questions over the connections between private groups, donors, lawyers, and attorney general offices, including Horner, point to a meeting in La Jolla, California, in 2012 as the root.
This was followed by more aggressive actions by attorney generals, including a probe for information pursued by the AG offices of New York and Massachusetts against Exxon Mobil.
Then in March 2016, United for Clean Power, a 17-state coalition of attorney generals, was launched, with support from, among others, former Vice President Al Gore.
"That effort collapsed under the scrutiny of FOIAs and subsequent media attention, but was reconstituted and given a home late last year by Michael Bloomberg," Horner said.
"Since that announcement, I have been pressing OAGs for records detailing how such an obviously mercenary use of law enforcement office came about."
At best, Horner said, the "unprecedented arrangement" between the State Impact Center and state attorney generals "operates in a gray area with neither prohibition nor authorization."