States Attorneys General Are For Sale to the Highest Bidder

David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries, at an Economic Club of New York event in New York on December 10, 2012. Arn Pearson writes that Republican state attorneys general granted private meetings to the biggest fossil fuel companies, such as Koch Industries, in exchange for six-figure contributions. Brendan McDermid/reuters

Stories of elected officials selling influence to special interests have become a fact of life in American politics. But there are still some public officials whom voters typically expect to be immune from the influence of donors.

Most Americans would be outraged, for example, if a judge took payment in exchange for private meetings with one of the parties in a case. And we would never tolerate the FBI or the police soliciting cash before deciding who to investigate, prosecute or protect.

While law enforcement officers courting money in exchange for influence may seem beyond the pale, attorneys general in states across the country have—largely under the radar—been doing just that.

Emails and documents released this week by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) reveal that a number of Republican state attorneys general granted private, confidential meetings to the nation's biggest fossil fuel companies in exchange for six-figure contributions to a fund to help re-elect Republican attorneys general.

The cash-for-influence operation is run by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), a 527 political group that convenes state attorneys general and major corporate donors at posh resorts around the country throughout the year. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and fossil fuel giants like Murray Energy, Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars since the beginning of 2015 for meetings with Republican attorneys general, including one to discuss their opposition to President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, held less than two weeks before the same officials sued in federal court to block the signature climate proposal.

RAGA has gone so far as to give corporations a price list detailing exactly how much access they get for donations ranging from $25,000 to $125,000.

All in all, research by CMD found that fossil fuel companies, utilities and the groups they bankroll shelled out more than $2.2 million for access to top GOP state law enforcement officials in 2015 and 2016.

State attorneys general and corporate lobbyists who participate in RAGA's scheme have done their best to keep it secret. Until now, Republican AGs and RAGA have successfully hidden those meetings from the public's view and stamped materials about them as "confidential."

AGs in at least five states have denied CMD's open records requests by saying the meetings were "campaign related," legal "work product" or that they had no documents covered by their state's sunshine laws.

The time has come for serious clean-government reforms that shine a light on AG fundraising practices, set clear ethical rules and ensure that AGs act on behalf of the public and not deep-pocketed special interests.

The critical need for reform has been recognized by leaders on both sides of the aisle. The bipartisan National Association of Attorneys General has stopped accepting corporate donations to cover the cost of its annual events.

James Tierney, a former Maine AG who now runs an ethics program for AGs at Columbia Law School, has said that AGs' agendas need "to be driven by the most important issues facing the attorneys general, not by contributors."

And Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, has called on the American Bar Association to amend its model rules to prohibit AGs from discussing litigation and other official matters at fundraising events or with campaign contributors.

States can and should enact similar laws to prevent conflicts and undue influence with their lead public attorneys, and to shine a light on AG communications with special interests that have a stake in state investigations and litigation.

It's going to take that kind of crackdown and a lot of sunshine to restore the public's confidence in the integrity of our legal system.

Arn Pearson is general counsel and policy adviser at the Center for Media and Democracy.