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AG Ellison blocks watchdog group from investigating inappropriate hires.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is stonewalling efforts by a government watchdog group that wants access to documents that might reveal unethical and inappropriate hiring practices within the Office of the Attorney General (OAG).

Energy Policy Advocates (EPA), a national organization that pushes for transparency in energy policy, wants to know how two “Special Assistant Attorney Generals” (SAAG) landed in the AG’s office to pursue “progressive clean energy, climate change, and environmental legal positions.”

EPA’s data requests revealed that these lawyers were seemingly hand-picked and provided to attorney generals across the country by the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, an organization housed within the NYU School of Law, created and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies to promote climate and clean energy policies.

On behalf of Minnesota’s Office of the Attorney General, these two SAAGs soon filed a lawsuit against the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, and Koch subsidiaries Flint Hills Resources and Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend. The suit called for them to use their “wrongfully obtained profits to help Minnesota pay for the devastating effects of climate change,” which they alleged was caused “in large part” by the companies’ decades-long “campaign of deception,” violating consumer protection and fraud laws. In the filing, Minnesota joined dozens of states, cities, and counties that have filed similar climate-reparative suits in recent years. These cases represent billions of dollars. In March 2021, after the defendants requested that the case be heard in federal court, a judge sent it back to Minnesota state court.

Doug Seaton, president of the Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC), which represents EPA, says that by hiring externally funded SAAGs, Ellison has bypassed OAG hiring conventions and effectively “rented out the Attorney General’s Office to lawyers paid and appointed by a third party.”

“You can’t have private parties basically running their lawyers through the AG’s office and pseudo-deputizing them to do whatever those third parties want done,” he adds. “We don’t think it’s lawful for the AG to hire in this way.”

Energy Policy Advocates has spent years investigating the third-party influence on state climate suits. Much of these behind-the-curtain agreements were discovered in emails obtained by EPA through public records requests filed around the country. But Ellison’s office has provided more challenges by claiming that his office is not subject to the same transparency rules applicable to other government entities. The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed and last summer forced Ellison to justify his withholdings with more than “broad and general claims of privilege,” according to UMLC. The court is currently awaiting Ellison’s revised justifications.

A similar but separate case is currently sitting before the Minnesota Supreme Court, also filed by UMLC, representing EPA in obtaining other documents from the OAG.

“Keith Ellison has been the most secretive and anti-transparency Attorney General that our group has sought documents from in the entire nation,” says Chris Horner, attorney for the public interest group Government Accountability & Oversight (GAO). Horner and GAO have worked with EPA on the SAAG investigations nationwide since their inception. “Hopefully after [the court’s] decision, we won’t have to file lawsuits to get documents about which the public has a right to know.”

Either way, Seaton believes the case will have consequences for the perceived accountability and transparency of Minnesota’s government, particularly the Attorney General’s Office.

“It’s a case of the government being handed over to private parties,” he says. “And that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. The citizens are supposed to be the ones running their own government.”

Seaton says he’s “very hopeful” that the Supreme Court will render a decision early so that voters can consider the information before voting for an attorney general in the election in November.