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Justus Armstrong: Is our Department of Justice for hire?

Last June, former Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick was hired by the Oregon Department of Justice as a Special Assistant Attorney General. What many Oregonians may not know is that his entire salary is being paid by an out-of-state private source.

New York University’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Bloomberg Philanthropies,  funds Novick’s legal fellowship. The aim is to strengthen state attorneys general offices in their crusade against the Trump administration’s environmental policies.

The unprecedented practice of providing external funding to state attorneys general to push a policy agenda ought to raise ethical concerns. As attorney Andrew Grossman put it: “What you’re talking about is law enforcement for hire ... really, what’s being done is circumventing our normal mode of government.”

In August 2018, the Competitive Enterprise Institute published a report by Christopher Horner which details the roots and function of the SAAG program. The report, titled Law Enforcement for Rent: How Special Interests Fund Climate Policy through State Attorneys General, describes the genesis of the SAAG program as an informal coalition spearheaded by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

A letter included in the report’s appendix, from Schneiderman and Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, shows she was invited to a March 2016 meeting of this coalition.

The letter describes the program as “an important part of the national effort to ensure the adoption of stronger federal climate and energy policies.” Correspondence between members of the coalition, also compiled by Horner, expresses a desire to collaborate on targeting companies in the energy industry with regulatory and enforcement tools.

This same environmental policy agenda drives the NYU center, as expressed in its communication with state attorneys general. E-mails indicate, “(The) opportunity to potentially hire an NYU Fellow is open to all state attorneys general who demonstrate a need and commitment to defending environmental values and advancing progressive clean energy, climate change, and environmental legal positions.” And in fact, NYU’s website directs interested attorneys general to demonstrate a need for outside funding in order to pursue these outside-funded positions.

If this sounds questionable, imagine a similar practice used to serve other political agendas. If a nonprofit backed by Charles and David Koch offered to fund a position in a state to provide legal assistance on regulatory matters, would it be considered a conflict of interest? If the National Rifle Association were bankrolling state employees to serve as a “resource” on gun law enforcement, would it raise red flags?

This isn’t simply about protecting the environment versus not. It’s a question of impropriety and corruption.

NYU indicate fellows owe their loyalty solely to the attorney general to which they are assigned. But SAAGs like Novick are still being paid by an outside source, while working on behalf of the state.

It appears Rosenblum was anxious about the ethical gray areas in this arrangement from the start. This is reflected in the obfuscating language of the hiring process.

E-mails from within the Oregon Department of Justice show Rosenblum instructed the department not to use the word “volunteer” to describe Novick’s position in his hiring paperwork. In reality, Novick isn’t working as a “volunteer,” or even as a “research fellow,” but as an environmental lawyer, as he has for years on his own.

Rosenblum also showed apprehension about the potential media attention the unprecedented arrangement could draw, as one e-mail states:

“We need to be sure we are prepared to explain his position to the media, who, no doubt, will be interested. (Because he is being paid by an outside entity — which is quite unusual I think ... )”

Novick’s position is, indeed, quite unusual. And Oregonians deserve an explanation.

Regardless of one’s views on Novick, Rosenblum or Bloomberg’s environmental policy agenda, embedding privately funded legal counsel in our justice department is a conflict of interest. The Attorney General’s Office should be loyal to Oregon citizens, rather than out-of-state donors, and should uphold the law, rather than push a legislative agenda.

If statutes aren’t clear enough on the practice, Oregon voters may need to consider a constitutional amendment to keep privately paid employees out of state offices and prevent the DOJ from undermining the democratic process. The resistance agenda belongs on the campaign trail, not in law enforcement.

Justus Armstrong is a research associate at the Cascade Policy Institute, which bills itself as a “free-market public policy research organization.”

Comments

Don Dix

Oregon's government has been 'a conflict of interest' since the public unions 'bought' Salem back in the 90s. So now, Oregon government can claim not only incompetence, but corruption as well.