Why do attorney general offices no longer tout their association with billionaire environmentalist Michael Bloomberg and the environmental law center he created at New York University (NYU)? Has this program, the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center (SEEIC), which has placed “Special Assistant Attorneys General” in eight state attorney general offices to push Bloomberg’s political agenda, become too much of a liability for state AGs to even be associated with it?

These questions are at the heart of a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed written by Chris Horner, a board member of the Government Accountability and Oversight (GAO), and Victoria Toensing, an attorney representing the group in a lawsuit against the Maryland Attorney General. The GAO reiterates this sentiment in a recent blog posts. Together these pieces raise the question: why the shift?

While the legal, ethical and political issues posed by the Bloomberg program have been detailed by Energy in Depth previously, the program’s description from its own hiring application alone makes these issues immediately apparent:

“The opportunity to potentially hire an NYU Fellow is open to all state attorneys general who demonstrate a need and commitment to defending environmental values and advancing progressive clean energy, climate change, and environmental legal positions.” (emphasis added)

In short, the program has functioned as a pay-for-play arrangement for Bloomberg. When applying for the program, state AGs needed to show that the fellows would work on cases that the offices would not otherwise have enough time or staff to prosecute. Many of these were seen by both Bloomberg’s group and the AGs’ offices as ways of rolling back regulatory changes announced by the Trump administration. As Maryland’s Deputy Attorney General Carolyn Quattrocki wrote in a 2017 email to colleagues:

“The gist is that Bloomberg is funding through NYU some fellowship positions for midcareer environmental litigators to be farmed out to State Attorneys General to join the fight against Trump’s rollback of our environmental protection laws and regulations,”

Already, at least one of the two State Impact Center fellows placed in the office of New York AG Letitia James is working on prosecuting ExxonMobil for allegedly misleading investors with its climate change disclosures.

GAO has argued that this arrangement raises serious ethical concerns about the access Bloomberg has to state law enforcement apparatuses. In Maryland, for example, Bloomberg supported current AG Brian Frosh in his 2013 primary race. Now, a NYU fellow works in his office. The op-ed summarizes these conflicts, stating:

“State legal officers taking money from private funders to pursue policy outcomes desired by those funders is inherently suspect. It also raises questions about the laws governing gifts, campaign contributions and bribes. To the extent these Bloomberg-funded lawyers are involved in prosecutions, it raises serious due-process concerns as well.”

Perhaps because people like Horner, Toensing, and the GAO have been digging into the relationship between Bloomberg, the SEEIC and state AGs, the program seems to be drawing away from Bloomberg – potentially at the behest of the AGs – in an attempt to downplay his influence on the SEEIC and, in turn, the state attorney general offices.

Archived versions of the Center’s website show that references to Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies have been de-emphasized over the course of the past year. Though Bloomberg’s donations were advertised when the program was first created and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ involvement included on the original homepage, references to him are disappearing from the site, with the current site’s “About” page not disclosing where their funding comes from or making any mention of Bloomberg. Further, the original homepage placed a much larger emphasis on the fellows program, which has subsequently been relegated to a sub-page on the current site. At the same time, NYU is rewriting the pages to focus on lawsuits and actions taken by the state AGs offices, rather than highlighting the fellows program.

This is happening even as the program’s fellows are becoming more heavily involved in state-level efforts to resist the Trump administration’s environmental agenda. As the WSJ op-ed notes:

“The State Energy and Environmental Impact Center has placed at least 11 special assistants in eight attorney-general offices. There could be more, but the center has stopped announcing new placements, possibly as a result of scrutiny from groups like ours.

Emails obtained by Horner reveal that some of the AG offices have sought to avoid publicizing their relationship with the Bloomberg program. In one, SEEIC director David Hayes apologized to the New Mexico AG’s office for the “need to make this announcement to facilitate the recruitment of attorneys who will take these spots in your office,” adding, “[t]here will be limited distribution of the announcement and we will not reach out to any press in your state,” so as to reduce public scrutiny.

Despite the Center’s best efforts to distance themselves from their founder and financial backer, this op-ed suggests that the program continues to enact Bloomberg’s agenda, but with greater obfuscation. In their latest blog, GAO concludes: “The public have a right to know how their elected — indeed, law enforcement — offices came to be used this way, and who is so using these offices.”