The House Science Committee's effort to obtain documents and information related to the ExxonKnew investigations was met with a brick wall on Wednesday after state attorneys general and nonprofit organizations refused to comply with the subpoenas, calling them an "intimidation tactic" with "McCarthy-like overreach" that violates the First Amendment.
The "requests to attorneys general and non-profit organizations are as meritless as his position on climate change," said Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA—one of the groups targeted by the committee—of chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas). "The American people know this Congressional subpoena is Rep. Smith's signature move to turn attention away from the real issue at stake, which is the investigations into Exxon's climate denial," she said.
As Common Dreams reported, when Smith's committee two weeks ago issued the subpoenas—with a deadline of Wednesday to hand over the documents—the move was met with scathing responses by the groups. Now they, as well as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey—who are conducting investigations into whether Exxon committed fraud—have formally refused to submit.
Schneiderman's letter (pdf) to Smith, signed by chief counsel Leslie Dubeck, calls the subpoena "an unprecedented effort" that "raises grave federalism concerns" and would "have the obvious consequence of interfering" with the ExxonMobil probe.
"Although the Committee purports to be acting out of First Amendment concerns, those concerns cannot be anything but pretense as 'the First Amendment does not shield fraud,'" letter states.
Healey issued a similar letter, penned by chief legal counsel Richard Johnston, to Smith, calling the subpoena "an unconstitutional and unwarranted interference with a legitimate ongoing state investigation" and "a dangerous overreach by the committee and an affront to states' rights."
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) sent a letter (pdf) to Smith as well, stating that it will not comply with the subpoena. UCS president Ken Kimmell called the subpoena "unlawful" and "an intimidation tactic."
"We've been transparent about our work exposing ExxonMobil's efforts to confuse the public and its shareholders about the climate risks of its products. Our documents and materials are on our website, and our offer from July 13 to brief the committee, with minority members present, still stands," Kimmell said in his statement.
"As we have shown repeatedly in correspondence with Chairman Smith, the committee has no jurisdiction to issue this subpoena and it violates our First Amendment rights," he continued.
A joint press statement issued by 350.org and Greenpeace USA called their subpoena "just the latest attempt by Exxon's Congressional allies to chill the work of climate justice organizations to hold Exxon and the fossil fuel industry accountable for their decades of climate deception."
Their letter (pdf) sent Tuesday to Smith raises the same objections as those of Schneiderman and Healey. It states that the climate groups "now formally object to the requests made in the Committee's subpoena, because, inter alia, (1) The Committee's requests violate the First Amendment; (2) the Committee lacks jurisdiction over ongoing criminal investigations conducted by state law enforcement authorities; and, (3) the Committee's request are vague, overbroad, and unreasonably burdensome."
"Representative Smith seems more interested in violating our rights to free speech than he is in investigating Exxon's potential fraud," stated May Boeve, 350.org's executive director. "And no wonder: he's taken $675,000 from the oil and gas industry over his career," she stated, citing data from OpenSecrets.org. "We've offered time again to meet with the Committee to discuss our concerns, but they're only interested in seizing our internal documents and emails. We've got nothing to hide, but this McCarthy-like overreach sets a dangerous precedent."
"During the hottest year on record, Congress should be going after the polluters, not the people," she continued. "We're going to keep fighting this subpoena and keep ramping up our campaign to hold Exxon and their friends accountable for their decades long campaign to mislead the public about the threat of climate change."
As to what recourse Smith now has, The Hill reports: "He could ask the full House to vote to hold them in contempt of Congress, which requires a majority vote. Alternatively, the House could vote to ask House General Counsel Thomas Hungar's office to pursue court action against them."