Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Judge says state has no reason to demand documents from former UVa professor
The judge said the attorney general failed to define the "nature of the conduct" that would justify an allegation of fraud.
RICHMOND -- A judge dealt Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli a setback Monday in his extraordinary clash with the University of Virginia, ruling that Cuccinelli has no sufficient reason to demand a wide range of records from a former UVa climate scientist.
The university and the professor, Michael Mann, applauded the decision.
In an e-mail, Mann said he's "very pleased that the judge has ruled in our favor."
"It is a victory not just for me and the university, but for all scientists who live in fear that they may be subject to a politically-motivated witch hunt when their research findings prove inconvenient to powerful vested interests," said Mann, a prominent climate scientist who now works at Penn State University.
Cuccinelli, meanwhile, issued a statement indicating he does not intend to drop the case, which his office began pursuing over alleged "possible violations" of the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.
Cuccinelli said he may appeal aspects of retired Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Paul Peatross' ruling and will issue a new demand for documents that conforms to the ruling.
Cuccinelli said Peatross "has given us a framework for issuing a new civil investigative demand to get the information necessary to continue our investigation into whether or not fraud has been committed against the commonwealth."
Peatross, sitting as a substitute judge, set aside two "civil investigative demands" that Cuccinelli issued to UVa as part of an inquiry targeting Mann. The attorney general's office indicated it is investigating the possible Fraud Act violations by Mann in obtaining five research grants at UVa, where Mann worked from 1999 to 2005.
Peatross said the attorney general can issue such subpoenas to UVa and investigate state-funded grants to professors. But in this case, Peatross ruled, Cuccinelli failed to define the "nature of the conduct" that would justify an allegation of fraud and a demand for documents.
"What the Attorney General suspects that Dr. Mann did that was false or fraudulent in obtaining funds from the Commonwealth is simply not stated," Peatross wrote in a six-page ruling.
Peatross issued his ruling 10 days after hearing arguments between the attorney general's office and UVa, Cuccinelli's alma mater. UVa lawyers had argued that the grants to Mann were beyond the reach of the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act because four of the awards came from federal funds and an internal university grant was awarded in 2001, two years before the state statute took effect. Peatross ruled that the attorney general "can only investigate funds paid by the Commonwealth for a grant to Mr. Mann."
Peatross ruled that the state grant could be probed if any funds were paid after Jan. 1, 2003, and if Cuccinelli meets the other requirements of the fraud statute.
UVa officials released a written statement saying they were "pleased and gratified" by the judge's ruling.
"In reaching its conclusion, the court made several important findings: that the attorney general failed to sufficiently support any allegation that Dr. Mann engaged in fraudulent conduct; that academic freedom should inform the propriety of an inquiry into the conduct of University faculty; and that the scope of any future inquiries by the attorney general would have to be substantially more narrow than these CIDs," the UVa statement read.
Cuccinelli sought documents related to the grants Mann obtained as well as e-mails and other correspondence between Mann and certain research scientists, university research assistants, secretaries and administrative staff. The subpoenas triggered a backlash from academics and scientists, who warned that such inquiries compromise academic freedom and impede research.
Some critics have accused Cuccinelli of going to excessive lengths to wage a broader battle against the science behind global warming. The Republican attorney general has sued the Environmental Protection Agency to challenge its finding that carbon dioxide and other emissions contribute to global warming.
Cuccinelli tied his demand for the documents to a controversy over e-mails stolen from a British university that were used by global warming skeptics to argue that climate change research had been exaggerated.
Mann is one of the creators of the so-called "hockey stick" graph that depicts sharply rising global temperatures in the past century. He has been a target of global warming skeptics, partly because one of the stolen e-mails referenced a "statistical trick" in his research. But multiple inquiries have produced no findings that he manipulated data.
"In this case, independent scientists have repeatedly reviewed Dr. Mann's work and found no evidence of wrongdoing," said Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and director of its Scientific Integrity Program. "Ken Cuccinelli is targeting Mann because he disagrees with the scientist's conclusions. These sorts of dangerous attacks distract scientists from their work and can have a chilling effect on all kinds of research."
Peatross said Cuccinelli's demand did not identify the nature of Mann's conduct "so that any reasonable person could glean what Dr. Mann did to violate the statute."