MONTPELIER, Vt. — A Washington Superior Court judge ruled late last week that the Vermont Attorney General’s office can’t evade public records requests by creating pseudo-legal common interest agreements or doing state business on private email accounts.
Last year, the Washington, D.C.-based Energy and Environment Legal Institute filed two public records lawsuits against former Attorney General William Sorrell after he refused to release information about his involvement with the AGs United for Clean Power Coalition, a group of 17 Democrat attorneys general who planned to investigate Exxon Mobil for its public statements on climate change. The group, led by Sorrell and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, has since fizzled out.
To shield information about the effort, the attorney general’s office had attorneys and staff from each attorney general’s office sign an agreement requiring nondisclosure of shared information. But on Thursday Vermont Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout denied that the the special arrangement allows for the withholding of public records.
“The [Common Interest] doctrine does not create a separate freestanding privilege,” Teachout wrote in her decision.
The AG’s office now has 30 days to deliver the requested documents to the Energy and Environment Legal Institute.
Matthew Hardin, lawyer for the legal institute, said the records will show how state law enforcement offices were out to conceal their efforts from the public.
“This case demonstrates that efforts to evade public scrutiny will not be permitted by the courts. It’s absurd that these Attorneys General actually thought they could hide their political dealings behind a pseudo-legal agreement,” he said in a statement.
Energy and Environment Legal Institute sought records on four key search terms dating from Jan. 9, 2016 to Feb. 29, 2016, and March 31, 2016, to April 17, 2016. One term was “Pawa,” meaning Matt Pawa, an environmental lawyer for the Climate Accountability Institute. Another search term was “Frumhoff,” for Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The other two search terms were emails with a “@ag.ny.gov” or “@democraticags.org.”
In the second ruling, Teachout said documents on Sorrell’s private gmail account would also need to be turned over.
“What the court has done is allowed us to add him as a defendant so that we can get to his gmail and figure out what’s there. Has he preserved it and has he turned it over to the state, or does he still have state records that he’s hiding on his gmail?” Hardin told True North Reports.
He also said climate activists have widely relied on private email accounts for years “to conduct official business in the shadows, operating presumably free from the public’s right to know.”
According to Hardin, the ruling was a big win for government transparency.
“Today’s ruling goes a long way toward ensuring that transparency laws will be applied to private e-mail accounts as well, including in the most outrageous cases such as the climate-RICO scheming, and that this avenue of hiding activities from the public is not acceptable,” he said.