Biden Transition Team Hired Leader of Bloomberg Scheme Privately Funding Activist Lawyers in State Agencies
President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team is relying on the help of a top official who spearheaded a program financed by billionaire activist Michael Bloomberg to take environmental legal actions against the Trump administration and oil and natural gas companies by placing and paying the salaries of lawyers inside state attorneys general offices.
Elizabeth Klein is the Deputy Director at the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center (SEEIC), a program at the New York University School of Law that was launched shortly after Pres. Trump took office thanks to a $6 million grant from Bloomberg. According to a report published by the Center and a tracking database, state attorneys generals have taken more the 400 actions since the start of the Trump administration on various air, water, energy, and environmental matters. The SEEIC helped support these efforts and climate lawsuits against major energy companies through the use of its legal Fellows Program that places SEEIC-paid lawyers in state attorneys general offices.
POLITICO reported that Klein is working for the Biden-Harris transition as part of the “agency review teams, which will lay the groundwork within agencies for the new administration.” Klein has been assigned to help facilitate the transition at the Interior Department, which plays a major role in the regulation of domestic energy production – especially in western states. The article notes that transition officials frequently go on to take government jobs at the federal level and this “provides a look at what a Biden administration might look like.”
The move signals the Biden administration could offer significant support for both enforcement and lawsuits. During the campaign, Biden released his Environmental Justice plan which called for establishing an “Environmental and Climate Justice Division with the U.S. Department of Justice” and also included a pledge to “strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation against polluters.” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was an earlier supporter for climate lawsuits during her time as California Attorney General, although she never filed a case.
SEEIC-placed “Special Assistant Attorneys General” have been assigned the task of litigating the attorneys generals “plaintiff-driven climate litigation” against energy companies. Public records show Klein took the lead in placing SAAGs into these offices to support clean energy, climate, and environmental issues paid by Bloomberg’s donations.
According to her bio, Klein previously served at the Interior Department during the Clinton and Obama administrations, as a law clerk in the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and its Environmental Enforcement Section, as well as in private practice at the Democratic Governors Association.
Open records requests show Klein was SEEIC’s point-person for finalizing placement of SAAGs.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has enlisted two SEEIC-paid SAAGs. Balderas’ application informed the SEEIC that “the agency [is] in search of alternative funding sources” given, particularly, the reduced revenues from oil and natural gas development in the state, such that “the limited resources has hindered our ability to identify and develop positions to proactively influence state and national policy.” However, with “a NYU Law Fellow who has expertise in the issues surrounding the environmental impact of oil and gas extraction and…experience and knowledge regarding site extraction, transportation, as well as understanding of the economics surrounding the competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy[, t]he Office would work with the NYU Law Fellow to identify ‘pressure points’ on which litigation can be used to most effectively influence policy.”
In neighboring Colorado, Attorney General Phil Weiser has not hired an SEEIC fellow and appeared skeptical of the program while campaigning for the office in 2018.
Virginia Attorney General’s office applied for a SAAG in that office in 2017, only to reverse course after being accepted, because of public scrutiny. Before that reversal, SEEIC Executive Director David Hayes and Klein offered to Donald Anderson, Virginia’s Senior Assistant Attorney General, to travel to Richmond to “meet with General Herring, you, and whomever else might be appropriate to discuss your office’s potential priorities and get your views on how we might best help support your work, particularly with regard to regional and national issues that AGs are getting engaged in in the climate, clean energy and environmental arena.”
In 2019, and again in 2020, the Virginia General Assembly barred the state’s attorney general from hiring SEEIC attorneys by requiring that everyone working in that office be government employees paid with state funds.
Klein also worked with Hayes to assign a SAAG to the Oregon Department of Justice in 2017. Hayes acknowledged a “great meeting” with officials from that office on the climate and clean energy front, while Klein underscored her role in the SAAG program by requesting to “discuss next steps in the fellowship program.” Similarly, she arranged for two SAAGs in New York’s AG Office, and three in Maryland’s, notifying all five of them in that they had received raises for their “fantastic work” as SAAGs.
While the Virginia and Oregon attorneys general have not yet filed climate change lawsuits, SAAGs sponsored by the SEEIC have been assigned to offices that have introduced litigation, including the attorneys general for Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, and New York. In Minnesota, Attorney General Keith Ellison acknowledged the work of two SAAGS – Leigh Currie and Peter Surdo – during the press conference introducing his climate change lawsuit in June. He praised their “excellent, excellent work” in building the case.
The SEEIC’s Fellows Program has attracted criticism as a potential conflict of interest for the state attorneys general who participate. In 2018, RealClear Investigations detailed the work of the SAAGs and reported that “critics say using special interest money for targeted government action is inappropriate.”
A Western Wire commentary from that same year provided additional details about the SAAG program that called it “very substantial in-kind donations to aspiring attorneys general.”
The program has attracted criticism from many other attorneys general, including Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill. “What’s problematic is the arrangement through which a private organization or individual can promote an overtly political agenda by paying the salaries of government employees,” he told the Daily Caller earlier this year.