Legal Experts Defend House Subpoenas Into Exxon Probe

September 16, 2016
In The News

• Legal experts say House within its authority to subpoena Exxon probe documents

• Democrats call the subpoenas inappropriate and out of committee's jurisdiction

Sept. 14 (BNA) -- The House Science Committee was well within its purview to subpoena documents from attorneys general investigating whether Exxon Mobil Corp. lied to investors about the risks climate change poses to its business, legal experts said.

Republicans and the attorneys general conducting the climate change investigation have clashed over whether the probe violates the First Amendment rights of Exxon and other free market advocacy groups being scrutinized. Elizabeth Foley, a law professor at Florida International University College of Law, said that Congress would be merely “decorative” if it did not exercise its authority to defend the Bill of Rights.

AGs Not Complying to Date

House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has subpoenaed records from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) detailing their investigation into Exxon. The attorneys general have not complied with the subpoena request.

The attorneys general may have valid concerns about the scope of the subpoenas, which could be negotiated with the committee, but they must comply with the subpoenas overall, George Washington University Law School Professor Jonathan Turley said.

Committee Democrats said Smith's subpoenas were inappropriate and clashed with the jurisdiction of other House committees. Likewise, Charles Tiefer, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, said the committee only has jurisdiction over the federal government's science activities.

Smith defended the subpoena as crucial to the committee's obligation to oversee science.

“The documents demanded will allow the committee to assess the breadth and depth of the [attorneys generals'] investigations and inform our understanding of whether their actions have a chilling impact on scientific research and development,” he said in his opening statement.

Protest Before Hearing

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and environmental groups that were also subpoenaed by the committee over the states’ climate probes protested the hearing before it occurred. Whitehouse called the pushback to the Exxon investigation a “campaign of dishonesty.”

Additionally, Energy & Environment Legal Institute, a free-market group, released Sept. 14 its latest batch of documents on the climate investigation, including an e-mail from the Democratic Governors Association that allegedly shows that Tom Steyer, a billionaire supporting climate action, worked with the association to add governors to the campaign groups that dispute the reality of climate science.