At first glance, the photograph seems unremarkable: 11 people, all men wearing blazers and ties except for one woman, posing behind a gleaming table. The background is polished and corporate, with a landscape painting, a sconce, and beige walls. It’s the kind of nondescript, business-attire group shot that appears regularly in local newspapers, church bulletins and company newsletters.
This photo can be found in the 2015 annual report for the Community Foundation of the Endless Mountains, a nonprofit in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County that raises and donates money to charitable causes in the area. The people in the photo are board members of the foundation. Bar graphs on the opposite page show the foundation’s increasing grants, funds and assets from 2003 on, and the article accompanying the picture touts 2015 as “a year to celebrate.”
To some residents of Susquehanna County whose lives have been affected by fracking, this picture is not something “to celebrate”: it’s a sign of a potential conflict of interest. That’s because of who it shows standing, side by side, in the second row: George Stark, tanned, grinning widely, hands neatly clasped, and Jason Legg, tight smile, red tie, glasses.
Stark was then, and still is, the Director of External Affairs for Cabot Oil & Gas (now called Coterra Energy), the company that pleaded no contest in 2022 to criminal charges of water contamination, brought by then state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, related to drilling in the village of Dimock. In 2015, Legg was elected to the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County as President Judge, a position he also still holds. “He’s right next to him,” said Craig Stevens, a longtime ally of the affected Dimock families who also owns property in Susquehanna County. “These are buddies.”
In November, as representatives of the state Attorney General’s office and Coterra Energy met in the Susquehanna County Courthouse in Montrose to finalize the plea deal, Stevens said that Judge Legg asked both parties if he should recuse himself from the proceedings. “That day, the first thing he did was say, ‘I have this potential conflict,’” Stevens said. Neither side objected, according to Stevens.
Anthony Ingraffea, who testified as an expert witness in an earlier lawsuit filed by Dimock residents against Coterra, was also in the courtroom that day. If he had asked any of the families whose water had been contaminated, Ingraffea said, ”‘Hey, do you think I’m in conflict?,’ …they would have said, ‘Yes, you are.’”
Instead, Dimock residents listened as the charges against Coterra were dropped from eight felonies (out of 15 total original charges) to a single misdemeanor. Coterra would have to pay $16.29 million to build a public water line, but construction could take five years. In the meantime, the company would provide residents with bottled water and water treatment systems.
Some residents of Dimock have been without clean water for more than a decade, relying on water buffalos, huge tanks designed to store and haul water. Dimock became infamous in 2010 with the release of Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland,” which included footage of residents lighting their methane-tainted water on fire. The film–and the plight of people in Dimock–helped to ignite a national anti-fracking movement.
Drilling has been banned in Dimock since 2010, but on the same day that the attorney general’s plea deal was announced, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection lifted the ban on drilling in the nine square-mile “box.” “Cabot has been salivating over that nine square miles, because there is no place on God’s earth where there are more prolific shale gas wells,” Ingraffea said.
“Before we went to court, they were already building mega pads not a mile from my house,” said Ray Kemble, a Dimock resident whose water is still contaminated. “Six hundred feet from the moratorium line.”
In February 2022, Legg recused himself from another case involving Coterra and Ray Kemble. Coterra claimed in this $5 million lawsuit that Kemble and his former lawyers had “tried to extort it through frivolous litigation,” according to the Associated Press. Legg stepped aside after a recusal motion revealed that Coterra had donated $6.4 million to the Community Foundation of the Endless Mountains since 2010.
In an expert opinion solicited by Kemble’s former lawyers, Pennsylvania Supreme Court retired Chief Justice Ron Castille recommended that Legg recuse himself from the case because of his role as a board member of the Community Foundation and Coterra’s role as a “significant donor” to the foundation. “Reasonable minds could infer that a board member of a charity (such as Judge Legg) would favor a major charitable donor (here, Cabot Oil) in order to sustain the donor’s continuing financial support,” he wrote. In Castille’s view, “reasonable minds might even conclude that Cabot Oil is seeking a sympathetic judicial forum (a single judge county) with a seemingly friendly judicial official.”
Castille noted that Legg’s fellow board member George Stark had been presented by Coterra as “its corporate designee” in the lawsuit. Legg is the only full-time judge in Susquehanna County, so a retired judge from Luzerne County was brought in to preside over the case after his recusal.
The retired chief justice also noted in his opinion that the Code of Judicial Conduct does not only say that a judge must “uphold and promote the independence, integrity and impartiality,” but that a judge “shall avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
The AP quoted the Attorney General’s spokesperson Jacklin Rhoads as saying that “we are aware of Judge Legg’s recusal in the other case and will not hesitate to make that motion at the appropriate time” for the pending criminal charges against Coterra.
The Attorney General’s office did not respond to questions about why it did not object to Legg’s involvement on the day of the Dimock settlement. But Dimock residents and their allies have questions of their own. “Isn’t that interesting? The AG files a case with this judge… And he has had to recuse himself from a much lower level case,” Stevens said. “You would think they’d be more concerned about making sure they don’t have a judge that might be compromised on there. But they didn’t seem to mind.”
Coterra’s George Stark joined the Community Foundation board of directors in August 2012. In April 2022, after the Associated Press article about Legg’s recusal from the Kemble case appeared, Stark resigned from the board.
The 2021 annual report for the foundation praised Stark’s work “spearheading a significant fundraising program” for a new hospital and education and vocational programs.
“The foundation benefited from George’s professional experience and as well as his understanding of community foundation operations,” the note about his resignation reads. “George will remain engaged in the many projects Coterra has in Susquehanna County, and we look forward to continuing to work closely with him.”
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Although Stark and Legg served on the board for the foundation together for 10 years, Legg has stated that he has “no personal relationship whatsoever” with Stark and said that he does “not believe it creates any type of conflict of interest,” according to the recusal motion filed by Kemble’s lawyers. But the connections between Legg, the Community Foundation, Coterra and the oil and gas industry in general are far more comprehensive than a single posed photograph might suggest, as set forth in the motion.
The Community Foundation houses and manages several funds that were established by, or are connected, to Legg. One is the Cindi Conaty Memorial Scholarship, a fund providing tuition assistance for local high school students that was named in honor of his mother. “Winners submit essays explaining their pro-life stance and values,” a description from the Community Foundation report reads. Another is the Susquehanna County Law Enforcement Fund, set up by Legg to “assist with the expenses of law enforcement” in the county. There is also the Thomas Conaty Memorial Scholarship, created to honor his stepfather, and the Montrose Minute Men Fund, which funds an ambulance service. Legg is a board member for the Montrose Minute Men. Records that were subpoenaed from the foundation show that Cabot Oil & Gas donated $2,500 to the Law Enforcement Fund in 2016. In 2014, the company helped to contribute $23,258.65 to the Montrose Minute Men, according to the recusal motion.
Legg’s financial interest in natural gas extraction may even be more personal than any of those donations: according to the recusal motion, Legg has leased 2.13 acres of his land to the oil and gas industry. Thomas Conaty, Legg’s stepfather, leased 98.2 acres of his property to the oil and gas industry before he died, and Legg is an heir to Conaty’s estate.
Those bar graphs that the Community Foundation uses to highlight its financial progress show a spike in 2012 in their assets, revenue and the amount of grants distributed. Contributions in 2011 were about $1 million and jumped to $4.1 million in 2012. Through the foundation, money that came both directly and indirectly from Coterra funded a range of projects and programs throughout the county, leading the organization to praise Coterra as “one of our leading charitable champions.”
Coterra donated $2.2 million to help fund construction of a new hospital; in 2013, they announced that the Physician’s Clinic would be named the “Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation Medical Office Building.” In 2012, the president of the foundation, Peter Quigg, wrote a guest post on Coterra’s company blog, Well Said Coterra, thanking Coterra for their donations in support of the new hospital.
Coterra funded vocational and education programs in the county, including a venture called the Mobile Oilfield Learning Unit, an exhibit that travels to middle schools to “motivate and empower students who may one day be interested in pursuing a career in the energy industry.” “We are developing increasing awareness on how onshore production is vital to the oil and gas industry,” one of the program’s managers said in 2019.
In addition to its education donations, Coterra supported a local animal shelter, women’s health screenings and the foundation itself. In 2011, the printing, distribution and production of the foundation’s annual report was paid for by Coterra, ensuring that the magazine could “continue to be distributed without charge to our 7,500 readers interested in philanthropic work in the Endless Mountains region.”
Beneath an article about students’ appreciation for “Cabot scholarships” in the 2011 issue is a blue box, accompanied by the Cabot logo, that boasts about Cabot’s $1 billion “investment in Susquehanna County” since 2006, as well as $10 million it spent on road repairs (including in Dimock township), and $43 million in Cabot royalties “received by Susquehanna County residents.” One bullet point explained that Cabot was “committed to drilling only in Susquehanna County.”
Articles and text about the Marcellus Shale in the foundation’s reports written by and about employees of gas companies like Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy discuss the economic benefits of drilling and the companies’ water treatment protocols. A Range Resources executive referred to the Marcellus as “maybe the greatest economic opportunity this nation has seen in generations.” There were also ads encouraging residents who had made money from gas leases to donate to the foundation.“Want to do some good with that gas windfall but can’t decide?” one ad, from the 2010 report, asked readers.
For some people in Susquehanna County, Legg’s entanglements with Coterra underscore how much power the oil and gas industry holds in this largely rural region–and how little can be done to combat that power. “He should not be sitting on anything that has to do with gas and oil…,” Kemble said. “But he’s the only judge we got. There’s no other judge here.”