WESTERN WIRE: Pressure is building on New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas over his office’s use of attorneys that are paid for by a group created with financial backing of New York City Mayor and climate activist Michael Bloomberg.

Balderas is one of 11 state attorneys general known to the public who has brought on such private attorneys funded by Bloomberg’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law. These attorneys are hired and have their salaries and benefits fully paid for by the Center, then are placed in state attorneys general offices specially to work on climate and environmental matters, including assisting with litigation against fossil fuel companies.

Western Wire first reported on the arrangement in Balderas’ office in September 2017.

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Now Balderas is receiving criticism from Power the Future, an energy advocacy group, and the American Tort Reform Association, according the Albuquerque Journal. These criticisms have prompted a harsh rebuke from the newspaper’s editorial board.

They have accused Balderas of avoiding transparency by giving power to privately-employed attorneys to shape policy in New Mexico even though they’re funded by climate activists in New York. They contend these attorneys have no accountability to New Mexico taxpayers.

This growing public pressure has forced Balderas’ office to respond. His spokesman told the Albuquerque Journal that the attorney general has routinely hired attorneys funded by outside sources, although he cited legal settlements from anti-money laundering and mortgage cases and grants from the federal government, not private sources like Bloomberg’s group.

Government Accountability & Oversight (GAO) is a public interest law firm that litigates against AG offices to obtain records such as those relating to the Bloomberg program. GAO’s Chris Horner dismissed Balderas’ insistence that this is a common activity as “comparing apples to stethoscopes,” noting, “The group’s name affirms its objective is to obtain state-level policy changes, though it seeks to do so via law enforcement, not the policymaking process.”

The American Tort Reform Association isn’t buying Balderas’ claims. “The New Mexico Attorney General’s response to the revelation that outside activist lawyers are being placed in positions of significant authority within state government is alarming,” ATRA President Tiger Joyce told Western Wire. “That this is business as usual in the Land of Enchantment should worry legislators and taxpayers alike. State employees ought to be accountable only to taxpayers – not wealthy individuals and their preferred special interest groups who pay activist lawyers to push their personal agendas within the government.”

In Western Wire’s previous reporting on Balderas’ use of Bloomberg-funded attorneys, energy officials in New Mexico pushed back on his tough-guy rhetoric that was targeting the oil and gas industry – a major revenue stream in the state. Balderas has described himself as a “street fighter” in pursuit of environmental justice causes. But Carla J. Sonntag, President and Founder of the New Mexico Business Coalition, said Balderas’s priorities are misplaced.

“Our crime rate is among the highest in the nation and while it may excite his progressive base, that kind of talk only exacerbates the problem. Balderas should focus on correcting our out of control crime rate, not creating more issues for the extractive industries that help fund our state budget,” Sonntag told Western Wire last year.

But it’s not just legal work that the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center is focused on. Last year, Western Wire asked David Hayes, a former Clinton and Obama administration official, at a climate conference in New York about the status of the program. Hayes admitted much of the work is actually be done out of Washington, D.C. with the purpose of running a political-style campaign to sell their priorities to the public.

Hayes said there “will be seven people in Washington, D.C., about five lawyers and two communications folks, to help coordinate the progressive positions of AGs and help amplify what we are doing with communications.”

In 2017, Western Wire reported on Balderas’ connection to the “Green 20” group of state attorneys general who have pursued environmental ligation. Balderas had joined forces with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to combat the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back or review Obama-era environmental regulations. Both Massachusetts and New York have taken on Bloomberg-funded attorneys.

Balderas also joined a suit with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in 2017 against the Trump administration and the Bureau of Land Management over the decision by the agency to suspend its waste prevention rule on methane emissions.

Groups promoting the oil and gas industry in the state aren’t the only ones seeing cause for concern over the Bloomberg-funded program operating out of the attorney general’s office. After the Albuquerque Journal published the story last week, the newspaper’s editorial board followed up with sharp criticism of Balderas. The editorial questions whether Balderas is serving the taxpayers of New Mexico or a special interest group in New York.

Posted at fairfieldsuntimes.com

COVER PHOTO: Noah Energy's Spring Hill  14-34-27-6HZ well being drilled in Teton County, Montana. Fairfield [Montana] Sun Times photo by Darryl L. Flowers