New York's Democratic attorney general (AG) made a chilling suggestion at an event he co-hosted this week: harsher penalties beyond fines for groups allegedly misleading the public on global warming.
"Financial damages alone may be insufficient," Eric Schneiderman said during the event in New York City Tuesday. "The First Amendment does not give you the right to commit fraud."
It's unclear if Schneiderman meant those "misleading" the public on global warming should be thrown in jail or maybe just do community service - though it's doubtful community service would be more "sufficient" than financial damages.
Schneiderman was joined by more than a dozen attorneys general from Democratic states, some of whom promised to join New York in investigating ExxonMobil for allegedly misleading the public about global warming. Former Vice President Al Gore even showed up to apparently show how serious state prosecutors are about the issue.
"Years from now, this meeting by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and his colleagues here today may well be looked back upon as a real turning point," Gore said, adding the government should go after commercial interests that have been "deceiving the American people, communicating in a fraudulent way, about the reality of the climate crisis and the dangers it poses."
Schneiderman's conference comes after the liberal AG launched an investigation into whether or not Exxon was accurately portraying to shareholders the risks global warming poses to the company's operations. The New York AG's office recently settled a probe into Peabody Energy, a coal company, for the same thing.
The investigation was prompted by reports by InsideClimate News and Columbia University alleging Exxon was misleading the public about global warming. The stories claim to show how Exxon knew oil production would make global warming worse, but continued to conduct business and fund groups skeptical of global warming regulations.
Reporting by InsideClimate and Columbia were meant to draw parallels between fossil fuel companies and the tobacco industry. In 1999, the federal government filed suit against tobacco companies, which eventually led to a conviction and millions of dollars being paid out.
For months, Democratic politicians and environmentalists have been calling for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to launch a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, investigation into groups they see as casting doubt on the theory of catastrophic global warming. RICO is what the DOJ used to go after the tobacco industry for misleading the public about the dangers of smoking.
"But, this vast denial apparatus that propagates the false doubt, that props up the phony science, that gets these yahoos who can't survive ... peer-reviewed scrutiny onto Fox News, onto the cable shows, saying that their scientists, they create an artificial conflict about this and that's why I think there's doubt," Rhode Island Democrat Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the main proponent of using RICO against skeptics and fossil fuel groups, told attendees at a League of Conservation Voters event last year.
"A lot of people haven't seen through the scam that's being perpetrated," Whitehouse said. "So that's one of the reasons I hope that we get another lawsuit out of the Department of Justice, like the one they brought against the tobacco industry that showed that the whole fraudulent scam was a racketeering enterprise, held them accountable for it."
There are major constitutional concerns with launching a RICO probe into groups who disagree with Democrats on global warming.
"We should all be concerned when state prosecutors announce that they will be targeting Americans for their views on controversial issues like climate change," David Rivkin Jr., a constitutional litigator who served in former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush's administrations, said in an emailed statement.
"No prosecutor could ever win a conviction consistent with the First Amendment based on the attorney generals' bogus climate 'cover-up' conspiracy," Rivkin said. "The fact that this investigation was launched with a press conference confirms that the whole point is to intimidate and chill speech."
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