Last week, Virginia lawmakers took action to stop an attempt by liberal mega-donor Michael Bloomberg to slide environmentalist attorneys into the state attorney general’s office. Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly approved an amendment to the budget proposal making it explicit that all attorneys working in the state attorney general’s office must be employees of the state or federal government. The move comes as Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) continues to battle a records request lawsuit digging into the program.
“The sole source of compensation paid to employees of the Office of the Attorney General for performing legal services on behalf of the Commonwealth shall be from the appropriations provided under this act,” the amendment reads.
The text further stresses the precarious position that Herring finds himself–caught between admitting that he approved an arrangement knowing that it violated state law, or that he failed to consider the appropriate law before submitting the application. An ongoing records request lawsuit seeks to clear up the issue.
“The legislature concluded that [the Office of the Attorney General] needs to be even more clearly prohibited from doing what it has been caught trying to do,” Chris Horner, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) senior fellow who first exposed the program, tells InsideSources, “Particularly given it refused to tell anyone precisely what legal authority allows [Herring] to do what he’s been caught out at, as well as why those laws prohibiting it don’t apply to this OAG and its unprecedented, if unconsummated arrangement with Bloomberg’s group.”
The scandal first came to light last fall, when Horner released a paper documenting a system whereby liberal billionaires paid for attorneys to work inside state governments who would promote a pro-environmentalist agenda.
The CEI report largely focused on the cozy relationship between billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the NYU Law School, and the offices of state attorneys general around the country. Bloomberg established the purportedly non-partisan State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at NYU in August 2017 to “enable interested state attorneys general to expand their capacity to take on important clean energy, climate, and environmental matters.”
The center recruits, pays, and places attorneys to serve as special assistant attorneys general working on cases related to climate change. When applying for the program, the state AGs had to specify that the additional personnel would allow them to pursue cases they would otherwise lack the manpower to prosecute. For CEI and others, this sounded like an attempt by Bloomberg to advance his political environmentalist agenda through lawsuits by state governments.
Herring’s office applied for and accepted the offer of a special assistant attorney general funded by Bloomberg. They even went as far as to settle on an $81,500-salary for the position. However, no attorneys ever began work for Herring, perhaps because CEI started asking questions.
In the wake of the CEI report, the program began to receive additional scrutiny and was the subject of a lawsuit in Virginia. State law specifies that agencies, including the attorney general’s office, must employ the personnel working for them, paying these staff from the state treasury. Although the office may hire private special counsel when necessary due to geography or specialized knowledge, the office is required to first provide a written explanation of why this additional staff is necessary.
Attorneys paid by Bloomberg, through the NYU law center, violate this requirement. As the state’s leading lawyer, Herring should have known that.
“[The Office of the Attorney General] told Bloomberg’s group…that they’ve reviewed the law and ethics and see no problem,” Horner continued. “While that is facially absurd, it is even less plausible that an attorney’s office, let alone the OAG, would make a claim about its own authority, let alone one that is so inherently troubling, without looking at the law, and preparing an analysis confronting the obvious statutory problems.”
Nor is Virginia the only state where legislators are pushing back on the program.
Republicans in Oregon are also working to try to stop Bloomberg’s influence on their state AG’s office. In September, the office of legal counsel that serves the Oregon State Legislature produced an analysis finding that the arrangement ran partially or completely contrary to state law.
Although legislators are trying to regain authority over the programs, it is an uphill fight in both Virginia and Oregon. While Republicans would like to see additional oversight, a Democrat sits in the AG’s office in both states.