Democrats try to curb Cuccinelli's powers

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R).
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R). (Steve Helber)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

RICHMOND - Democrats in the General Assembly are trying to curb the power of the state's attorney general to subpoena public universities in an effort intended to limit inquiries like the one Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II is conducting at the University of Virginia.

Under a 2002 statute designed to catch government employees defrauding the public of tax dollars, Cuccinelli (R) has demanded that the university turn over documents and e-mails related to the work of Michael Mann, a former university climate scientist whose research showed that the Earth has been warming.

Cuccinelli has said he wants the documents, including grant applications and e-mails exchanged between Mann and 39 other scientists and university staffers, to help determine whether Mann committed fraud by knowingly skewing data as he sought publicly funded grants for his research.

Cuccinelli's demand has pleased conservatives, who say that global warming is a hoax, but has outraged many academics, who say he is smearing an honest researcher because he does not approve of his findings.

Several previous investigations of Mann's work, including one by Pennsylvania State University, where Mann has worked since 2005, found that although his research conclusions were open to debate, there was no evidence that Mann engaged in efforts to falsify or suppress data.

U-Va. has been fighting the subpoenas in court, alleging that Cuccinelli's request infringes on the academic freedom of its faculty.

As the litigation proceeds, some legislators have proposed changing the law to make it harder for the attorney general to issue such civil subpoenas.

A bill sponsored by Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) would shield academic work at universities from being subject to civil investigative demands by the attorney general.

A broader effort sponsored by Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) would require that in civil cases, the attorney general file a lawsuit that can be reviewed by a judge before he is able to issue subpoenas.

If the bills pass the Democratic-led Senate, they are unlikely to be approved by the House of Delegates, where the GOP holds a strong majority.

Still, they afford Democrats a forum for hammering the controversial attorney general over the U-Va. subpoena, which they consider an area of vulnerability with moderate voters.

"Jefferson would be turning in his grave to see what was coming from Richmond because of Attorney General Cuccinelli's efforts to capture private correspondence within faculty and staff at the University of Virginia," said Del. David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), who is co-sponsoring the bill and whose district includes the university, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson. "If people are concerned about government intrusion into your private life, you ought to be very concerned about what the attorney general is attempting to do in this case."

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