Two ExxonMobil public relations officials recently masqueraded as journalists in hopes of gathering information from a Colorado lawyer involved in a lawsuit against the colossal fossil for climate-related damages.
“The strategists—Michael Sandoval and Matt Dempsey—are employed by FTI Consulting, a firm long linked with the oil and gas industry. They did not deny they represent Exxon,” Climate Liability News reports. “Their call to Marco Simons, general counsel for EarthRights International, who represents the city and county of Boulder and the County of San Miguel in a lawsuit the communities filed last year seeking climate damages from Exxon, potentially runs afoul of ethics rules for both the legal and public relations industries, and appeared to be a fishing expedition for information about Simons’ clients in that suit.”
The lawsuit, backed by the libertarian Niskanen Center, “states that the two companies ‘knowingly and substantially contributed to the climate crisis by producing, promoting, and selling a substantial portion of the fossil fuels that are causing and exacerbating climate change, while concealing and misrepresenting the dangers associated with their intended use,’” The Mix reported last year. “It contends that taxpayers can’t cover the full cost of addressing those challenges, and shouldn’t have to.”
CLN says Sandoval and Dempsey are both listed as writers for Western Wire, a website run by the Western Energy Alliance, a regional oil and gas association that includes Exxon as a member and has an Exxon representative on its board. Dempsey is also a former staffer to notorious congressional climate denier James Inhofe (R-OK). Western Wire is staffed by strategists from FTI, a company that also supports the Independent Petroleum Association of America’s Energy In Depth public outreach campaign. It was founded in 2009 with funding from an Exxon subsidiary.
“On the call to Simons, which was recorded and released by EarthRights, the two men pressed for an interview even though Simons quickly said he couldn’t talk to them if they represented Exxon in any way,” CLN recounts. “When they evaded the question, Simons refused to comment.”
CLN has a detailed summary of the call and a link to the recording.
Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, said the ethical onus is on lawyers to avoid speaking with people who represent their clients in lawsuits. “Kirtley said the tactic is known as a sock puppet: one side trying to get information through unusual measures they might not get through pretrial discovery,” CLN reports. “She said a court could impose sanctions for trying to get around the rules of discovery during active litigation.”
“The burden is on the attorney,” she told the publication. “The concern for the lawyer would be, if I’m basically being tricked into talking to this person, am I violating ethics rules without knowing that I am?”