The senior assistant under Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) “inappropriately used Commonwealth resources” to help energy companies, including a top Cuccinelli donor, according to a report by Virginia’s inspector general. The investigation found that, contrary to Cuccinelli’s claims, she acted “beyond the scope of her authority and position.”
A Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2009 series by Daniel Gilbert in the Bristol Herald Courier detailed the problems with the system used in Virginia to determine who gets royalties from coalbed methane gas collected from the coal mined under their property. With little oversight, energy companies have underpaid the amounts of royalties they to southwestern Virginia landowners. The big coal companies, despite not having the gas rights, regularly dispute their ownership in hopes of forcing the landowners to agree to a 50-50 split on the royalties. Many of these landowners cannot afford the costly legal process needed to establish ownership in court and access the escrow funds — if they even know they are entitled to it.
Consol Energy, the Canonsburg, PA-based parent company of CNX Gas Co. (one of the two biggest companies active in the coalbed methane extraction in southwest Virginia) has given Cuccinelli — a climate change denier who has regularly sided with the industry — more than $143,500 in campaign contributions.
Two years ago, some of the landowners frustrated with companies’ tactics, filed a lawsuit and requested class-action certification. Cuccinelli’s senior assistant attorney general Sharon Pigeon intervened in the case to defend the constitutionality of the state law — but also coordinated with company lawyers on their strategy to oppose the class-action status. U.S. Magistrate Pamela Meade Sargent, after reading the email exchanges between Pigeon and the companies, called the assistant attorney general’s conduct shocking and referred the matter to the Virginia’s inspector general. Pigeon’s emails show her advice to the companies included strategy on how to take advantage of a paperwork processing glitch to keep one landowner’s case out of court.
By law, the inspector general can only investigate conduct by members of Cuccinelli’s office — not the Attorney General himself.
While the inspector general found that Cuccinelli and his team “only became aware” of 52 emails sent by Pigeon to the energy companies when a lawyer for the landowners filed a motion for discovery, Cuccinelli opposed the public release of Pigeon’s emails and defended her actions. His office did admit some of her actions were “overzealous.”
Asked after an August energy forum about the Consol contributions, Cuccinelli attempted to suggest that he had actually opposed the company’s interests, then stormed off without offering an explanation.
Watch Blue Virginia’s video of the exchange: