What Does Eric Schneiderman's Resignation Mean for N.Y.'s Exxon Probe and Environment Lawsuits?

The New York attorney general was the public face of a wide range of climate and environment cases, but other AGs and a team of lawyers are pushing forward the work.

Eric Schneiderman, shown here during a January press conference, announced his resignation as New York's attorney general on May 7 after allegations that he physically assaulted four women during relationships with them. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Eric Schneiderman, shown here during a January press conference, announced his resignation as New York's attorney general on May 7 after allegations that he physically assaulted four women while he was in relationships with them. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's abrupt resignation after allegations surfaced that he had physically assaulted four women has complicated, but probably not derailed, a series of high-profile environmental investigations and lawsuits that his office spearheaded.

Being the chief law enforcement officer for the state of New York gave Schneiderman a bully pulpit from which he attacked the environmental policies of the Trump Administration and challenged ExxonMobil and its political allies.

His admirers had seen him as a guardian of environmental and social justice—including protections for women. But the detailed allegations, published May 7 in The New Yorker magazine, that he assaulted and emotionally abused women in several relationships have sunk his reputation. He announced a few hours after publication that he was resigning. Schneiderman wrote that he contests the women's accounts, but that he cannot continue in office.

It may be too early to assess the damage to the environmental causes he was pursuing. Much depends on who replaces him as attorney general, how robustly his staff carries on, and how effectively other state officials take up the slack.

Schneiderman spent three years digging into a possible fraud case against Exxon over what the oil giant told investors and the public about climate change, sparking round after round of litigation in which he has been allied with Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts. The work is far from complete.

He also scored some success against Trump policies, including but not exclusively those involving the environment and climate change, and he has filed one case after another challenging the administration in its broad assault on environmental protections.

New York's national clout, its advantageous laws and its big, skillful corps of state prosecutors are all powerful advantages that survive him.

But it was Schneiderman who assembled a coalition of attorneys general under the banner of AGs United for Clean Power and proclaimed them "dedicated to coming up with creative ways to enforce laws being flouted by the fossil fuel industry and their allies in their short-sighted efforts to put profits above the interests of the American people."

That put him squarely in the public spotlight and in the sights of the fossil fuel industry.

State AGs: Investigations Aren't Stopping

Although his resignation may not derail the state's investigation of Exxon, it could add fuel to the campaign by Exxon and its supporters to weaken public confidence in the New York and Massachusetts investigations.  

Healey's staff said Schneiderman's resignation will not affect her commitment to pursuing the Exxon probe.

"The American people deserve answers from executives at Exxon about what they knew about the impact of burning fossil fuels on our climate, when they knew it, and what they told their investors and the world," Healey said. "We look forward to continuing our critical investigation."

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who frequently allied with Schneiderman on environmental issues, said other states will step in if there is any void to fill.

"Schneiderman was very influential; smart and dynamic," he said. "But this has been a collaborative effort from the beginning, and I expect it will continue."

Frosh called the allegations against Schneiderman "unacceptable and horrifying" but emphasized the policy issues should not be lost.

"This is not about any one individual," he said. "It is about the threat to the health and safety of every single American."

May Boeve, executive director of the environmental group 350.org, issued a statement saying her group supported the Exxon investigations Schneiderman led, but that it felt a duty to speak out against violence. "We applaud the courage of all the women who spoke up to bring these abuses to light," she wrote. "We refuse to turn a blind eye on violence against women and vulnerable communities."

A spokesman for the New York attorney general's office did not respond to calls for comment.

Behind the Scenes, It Is Staff Executing the Work

Schneiderman, 63, was seeking a third term as attorney general. The New York State Legislature will select a new attorney general who will serve until the start of the new term on January 1. Until the interim attorney general is appointed, the state's solicitor general, Barbara D. Underwood, has been appointed acting attorney general.

Underwood issued a statement on Wednesday, saying, "The work of this office is critically important. Our office has never been stronger, and this extraordinarily talented, dedicated and tireless team of public servants will ensure that our work continues without interruption."

New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood was sworn in on May 8 as acting attorney general. Credit: State of New York.

New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood was sworn in on May 8 as acting state attorney general, replacing Schneiderman. Credit: State of New York.

The New York and Massachusetts investigations sparked intense legal battles with Exxon and the ire of the company's political and industry allies. The House Science committee subpoenaed Schneiderman and Healey, while a coalition of Republican state attorneys general went to court in support of Exxon's attempts to block Schneiderman's investigation.

Exxon's furious legal battle to block the investigations has been dealt serious blows in the past two months. First, a New York federal judge refused to block the investigations, and then the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rebuffed Exxon.

Those rulings open the door for the investigations to continue. In Massachusetts and New York, that means the heavy lifting will be done by experienced legal staffs.

Exxon Probe 'Has a Life of Its Own'

While Schneiderman set the tone and was the public face in New York, it will be the staff that executes the investigation, legal experts say. And at this point, legal experts say, it's doubtful the course will change.

It's likely Schneiderman was briefed periodically, but was not hands-on at this stage of the Exxon investigation, said Martha Coakley, an attorney for the Boston law firm of Foley Hoag who served as the attorney general of Massachusetts for eight years before being succeeded by Healey in 2015.

"As the attorney general, he certainly would have known what was going on but not have been in the weeds," Coakley said. "He'd sign off on critical matters, but at this stage most of the work would be being done would by the staff."

Pat Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at the Vermont Law School, said the resignation may amount to a little bump in the road for the investigation. The investigation has a "life of its own," Parenteau said, and momentum now that the courts have brushed aside Exxon's attempts to stop it."  

"Another AG may not be out front as much, but the investigation will continue to track on a schedule," he said.

The allegations may still be used to try to tar the investigation and other work by Schneiderman to uphold environmental policies.

"In some political circles, I think you'll see an attempt to use this to undermine public confidence," Parenteau said. "It's hard enough to explain to the public why an investigation is important and not a political stunt the way Exxon has portrayed it.

"Then all of sudden you get something like this, and it damages the effort."

Nearly a Dozen Environment-Related Cases

Just hours before he announced his resignation, Schneiderman put himself at the forefront of a coalition of eight state attorneys general calling on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to halt his proposed science transparency rule that would prevent EPA's use of studies that promised subjects confidentiality, including health studies showing damage from pollution.

Schneiderman had filed nearly a dozen lawsuits against the federal government seeking legal protections of the environment, energy and climate, according to information collected by the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law. They include targeting attempts to roll back auto emissions standards and government failures to control smog pollution.   

While Schneiderman has vacated his office, he has left a legal blueprint for others to follow, said David Shapiro, an assistant professor of Public Management at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"He has stepped up," he said. "If I were Exxon, I would rather give up Schneiderman and take the unknown."

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