Did the #ExxonKnew Campaign Just Issue a Warning to California’s Democratic Attorney General?

Unable to secure a public announcement of an #ExxonKnew investigation from either former Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris or her successor Xavier Becerra, climate activists have decided to play political hardball. If Becerra continues to stay silent on #ExxonKnew, activists are warning that they may support his opponent in the next election.

According to an article from a new Rockefeller-funded “news” site, called Climate Liability News, “there is mounting political pressure on [Becerra] to declare at last whether his office has or will throw its weight behind the Exxon probe.” California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, one of Becerra’s chief rivals in the 2018 election, told Climate Liability News that he might make #ExxonKnew a campaign issue.

But the article reveals something even more interesting: if there ever were an investigation by the California Attorney General’s office (there still has been no confirmation of this), Harris apparently believed Exxon to be guilty before the probe ever began – at least according to an environmental activist who requested anonymity:

It has been more than 18 months since Kamala Harris, then California’s attorney general, privately assured supporters that her office would join New York and Massachusetts in an aggressive probe of ExxonMobil. […] A few weeks after Harris’ first acknowledgement of an investigation, at a campaign event in Fresno, Harris again confirmed to one activist that her office had launched a probe into Exxon’s actions. That probe, Harris told the activist, began in October 2015, almost immediately after the allegations against the company first surfaced. She said she was confident that it would result in prosecution. “I’m suing them,” Harris told the activist. “Investigating first, then suing.” (emphasis added)

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s exactly how Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey approached her investigation, which have sparked concerns from at least one federal judge that her investigation was conducted in bad faith.

At the infamous March 29, 2016 press conference with Al Gore (spearheaded by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman), Healey openly admitted that she believed Exxon to be at fault before she even launched her investigation. As she put it,

Fossil fuel companies that deceived investors and consumers about the dangers of climate change should be, must be, held accountable. That’s why I too have joined in investigating the practices of ExxonMobil. We can all see today the troubling disconnect between what Exxon knew, what industry folks knew, and what the company and industry chose to share with investors and with the American public.” (emphasis added)

Given this admission and other evidence, Ed Kinkeade, a U.S. District Court judge in the Northern District of Texas, issued a discovery order to determine whether “bias or prejudgment” influenced Healey’s decision to initiate what could be a “bad faith” investigation into ExxonMobil. Not long after that announcement, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was added to that discovery order, which opened up the door to an extensive examination of both AGs’ internal documents.

With Harris allegedly claiming that she would be “suing them” before her investigation even began, the California AG’s office could be subject to similar legal rebukes – if an investigation ever materializes. In a courtroom controversy over the legitimacy of such an investigation, the report by Climate Liability News – and its anonymous source – would likely take center stage.

Given all this, it’s easy to see why #ExxonKnew activists are so upset and resorting to drastic measures. With the two-year anniversary of the launch of #ExxonKnew campaign coming up this fall, they’re desperate to demonstrate that their efforts have made some kind of an impact. While the campaign has stalled, shifted, and otherwise been forgotten, they hope they can finally make some headway in what they believe to be friendly territory in California.

Of course, the goal of the #ExxonKnew campaign has been to recruit as many Democratic Attorneys General as possible to go after companies like ExxonMobil. The effort originally looked promising, when a coalition of AGs, calling themselves the “Green 20,” stood on the stage with Schneiderman and Al Gore to attack Exxon at the March 29 press conference.

But the effort began to unravel almost immediately, as emails obtained via public records requests showed the extent of the collusion between the AGs and the primary activists of the #ExxonKnew campaign. They also showed that many of the AGs in Eric Schneiderman’s coalition were actually running for the hills because they didn’t want anything to do with such a blatantly political crusade.

Today the only AGs left standing are Schneiderman and Healey — and Healey’s investigation has been put on hold. Never mind that taxpayers are footing the bill for their political crusades amid billion-dollar state budget shortfalls. Massachusetts taxpayers have even forked over at least $44,000 to the “most expensive” law firm in Dallas to defend Healey’s investigation.

Meanwhile, #ExxonKnew activists have long struggled with what to do about the Democratic Attorney General in California. To date, no official investigation has been announced. The LA Times gave a forum to an anonymous source back in 2015 suggesting an investigation was underway, but then-AG Kamala Harris refused to comment on any investigation before getting elected to the U.S. Senate. Since January, when Becerra was appointed attorney general, his office has also declined to comment on whether there is any actual investigation.

In fact, Becerra has stated that there won’t be an announcement, even if an investigation were to take place. “We don’t announce our investigations,” he said at a town hall meeting in July 2017. “I am very aware of the issue involving Exxon.”

Still, the desperate effort by #ExxonKnew activists to ramp up political pressure is just another reminder that the campaign is based on politics; it’s not a legitimate investigation. Numerous legal experts and editorial boards across the country have criticized and dismissed #ExxonKnew crusade precisely for that reason.

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