Industry money backs attorneys general pushing Atlantic Coast Pipeline
A group of 18 state attorneys general is calling for construction to proceed on the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed to carry fracked gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina, through both ecologically and socially vulnerable areas. Last week the group submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in a case asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider a lower court's decision to block a U.S. Forest Service permit allowing the project to cross the Appalachian Trail and run through the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests. Oral arguments are set for Feb. 24, with a decision expected by June.
All of the attorneys general who signed onto the brief are Republicans. Only one represents a state that will be directly impacted by the pipeline's construction: Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, who's leading the pro-pipeline coalition. The other signatories represent Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring did not sign the brief. Both are Democrats in states with significant opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and Stein is up for re-election next year.
The brief's signatories are all members of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), a group devoted to electing Republicans to states' top law enforcement offices. (The eight RAGA members who did not sign on to the brief represent Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Tennessee.) When RAGA was formed in 1999 by conservative state legal officials seeking to curb lawsuits against corporate wrongdoers, there were 12 Republican attorneys general nationwide; today there are 26. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry recently took over as RAGA's chair, replacing Ken Paxton of Texas.
Under IRS rules, RAGA is a tax-exempt 527 political nonprofit that can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations but can't coordinate with individual campaigns. In 2016, for example, it spent a whopping $6.8 million to support Morrisey's reelection, according to a recent report from the watchdog Energy and Policy Institute. That year he defeated Democratic challenger Doug Reynolds, an attorney and former state House delegate, by almost 10 percentage points. RAGA spent nearly the same amount in Virginia in 2017, though Republican candidate John Adams lost by almost 7 points.
RAGA has been called a "pay to play" group and "Corporate Attorneys General" because it offers corporations access to its members based on how much money they donate to the group. According to a 2018 "Membership Benefits" explainer obtained by Documented, an organization that investigates corporate influence, a yearly contribution of $25,000 or more to RAGA allows corporate donors to shape the group's legal policy via "a secret online bulletin board," while $125,000 allows them to "lead issue briefings." The benefits of giving $250,000 or more are available only "upon request."
Also under IRS rules, RAGA must disclose its donors — a requirement that reveals the group's extensive ties to dirty energy interests.
RAGA donor benefits
According to OpenSecrets.org, RAGA's top known donors in the past three campaign cycles included oil and gas drillers Devon Energy Production and Range Resources, the energy and petrochemical conglomerate Koch Industries, coal mining giant Murray Energy, electricity producer and distributor Entergy, gas-compressor manufacturer Ariel, and oil and gas services company Trinity Industries, along with the industry groups American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. Among RAGA's past energy industry contributors are the American Petroleum Institute, Anadarko Petroleum, CenterPoint Energy, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Newfield Exploration, and Noble Energy. A recent investigation by the Energy and Policy Institute found that Dominion Energy of Virginia, the lead partner in the ACP project, donated over $60,000 to RAGA since 2014.
Financial support of RAGA has its benefits. For example, a 2016 investigation by the watchdog Center for Media and Democracy revealed that RAGA members held private, undisclosed meetings with fossil fuel industry lobbyists to coordinate on shielding RAGA funder ExxonMobil from scrutiny as the Irving, Texas-based oil and gas giant faced an investigation by New York's Democratic attorney general into whether it intentionally misled shareholders and the public about climate change. New York filed a lawsuit in 2018 accusing the company of doing just that; last week it was found not guilty of securities fraud, though the judge noted that "nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases in the production of its fossil fuel products."
A significant portion of RAGA's funding remains a mystery because it came from a secret-money source. In the 2018 campaign cycle, RAGA's largest donor by far at over $3.1 million was the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), which promotes conservative judges; the group also gave RAGA over $2.1 million in 2016 and $1 million in 2014. Because JCN is a secret-money 501c4 nonprofit under IRS rules, it does not have to disclose its donors. But its funding has been linked to the Wellspring Committee, a prominent conduit for secret money in politics that operates out of Manassas, Virginia. Wellspring won't be an ongoing source of funding for anyone, however, as it filed termination paperwork earlier this year.
Republican attorneys general are not alone in cultivating financial ties with corporate interests. As the New York Times revealed in a 2014 investigation, corporations facing state-level scrutiny and lawsuits donate to both the RAGA and the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) in order to gain access to law enforcement and help their causes. Both associations are known for holding corporate-sponsored conferences in high-end settings where attorneys general mingle with corporate executives, lawyers, and lobbyists.
In 2018, DAGA raised almost $9 million. Top among its donors was the Progressive State Leadership Committee at $189,000, followed by Planned Parenthood Action, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and Everytown for Gun Safety, all at $150,000, and Walmart at $125,000. Among the 15 donors who gave around $100,000 were telecommunications company Comcast, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, tobacco giant Altria Group, and several labor unions. No energy companies are listed among DAGA's top donors in 2018, though Trinity Services donated $100,000 in both the 2016 and 2014 cycles.
But DAGA's fundraising efforts are far surpassed by those of RAGA, which took in over $20 million in 2018 alone. Beside the Judicial Crisis Network and Koch Industries, RAGA's other top contributors in that cycle were the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, which wants to make it harder to sue corporations, at $840,000; the National Rifle Association at $800,000; Michigan-based private equity firm ETC Capital at $500,000; and Koch Industries at $466,600.