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Outside attorneys in AG’s Office face criticism

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The state Attorney General’s Office employs two lawyers funded by a New York University center established to promote clean energy and environmental laws – an arrangement slammed by a group supporting New Mexico’s energy industry.

Attorney General Hector Balderas

Attorney General Hector Balderas

Matt Baca, a spokesman and senior counsel for the attorney general, said the lawyers are managed exclusively by New Mexico officials, not by the NYU School of Law, which pays their salaries.

Dozens of employees in the office – headed by Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat – are funded by outside sources, Baca said, including through federal grants or legal settlements.

But the practice has drawn criticism from Power the Future, an advocacy group for energy workers, and the American Tort Reform Association, which has described the arrangement nationally as an improper way for outside interests to embed attorneys in public offices.

Larry Behrens, a spokesman for Power the Future, a group that touts its opposition to radical environmental groups, said New Mexicans should be outraged.

Employing two outside-funded attorneys, he said, makes it look like “positions in our public offices are for sale.” Furthermore, he said, it isn’t clear which cases they’ve worked on or what they’re doing.

Michael Bloomberg

“This arrangement raises a number of transparency and ethical issues because it clearly doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said in a written statement. “These attorneys are funded by out-of-state billionaire Michael Bloomberg and given power over the people of New Mexico yet they aren’t accountable to taxpayers.”

The lawyers are employed through the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the NYU School of Law. The center was established in 2017 with a $6 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, according to The Washington Post.

The program is open to any attorney general throughout the country regardless of party affiliation. Interested attorneys general apply and describe their need for extra support on clean energy, climate and environmental matters.

Baca said the two lawyers in New Mexico are under the exclusive control and management of Balderas’ office. They work in the Consumer and Environmental Protection Division.

A five-page agreement signed in 2018 says each of the NYU fellows will be commissioned as a special assistant attorney general and be assigned substantive work and responsibility, similar to other attorneys in the office. They are to work primarily on “clean energy, climate change and environmental matters of regional and national importance.”

Under the agreement – between the Attorney General’s Office and the NYU law school’s state impact center – the lawyers’ terms are expected to last two years.

Baca said the attorneys help handle environmental legal work, which includes conducting research and drafting correspondence and court pleadings.

He didn’t mention any particular cases they had worked on. But under Balderas, New Mexico has filed lawsuits against the Air Force over water contamination and the Environmental Protection Agency over the suspension of a vehicle-pollution rule.

It isn’t unusual, Baca said, for employees to be funded through outside sources. As with many state agencies, he said, the Attorney General’s Office relies on grant funding, not just state appropriations.

“We hire multiple employees on outside grant funding that work on a wide range of issues from human trafficking and internet crimes against children to environmental protection,” Baca said in a written statement. “This practice has spanned multiple administrations over several decades.”

Anti-money laundering employees, for example, are funded through a settlement with Western Union, he said, and a homeowner protection program is paid for through a national mortgage settlement.

A host of federal grants also pay for a variety of attorneys, Baca said. The Medicaid fraud division within the office is funded largely by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

But the NYU agreement has come under scrutiny from outside groups.

The American Tort Reform Association issued a report in May slamming the practice of allowing NYU-funded environmental fellows to work in the offices of state attorneys general. It said seven states and the District of Columbia participated in 2018.

Tiger Joyce, president of the American Tort Reform Association, said the NYU program and similar “arrangements put government employees in a position in which they are serving two masters – and one will always win out.”

Baca said Balderas has nothing to hide.

“The Attorney General has a strong and transparent record of prosecuting political and corporate corruption,” Baca said, “and he makes no apologies to special interests who are afraid of increased accountability.”

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