A story broke last week that has put Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli on the defensive in his gubernatorial campaign. It’s the subject of the lead editorial in today’s paper and AP reports on Thursday, and Friday and today.
Here’s the gist: The Attorney General’s Office has aided two out-of-state gas companies in a dispute between them and Virginia landowners over as much as $30 million in royalties owed to them for gas exacted from their land going back decades.
Here’s the background: Some folks in far southwest Virginia sold mineral rights to coal companies decades ago. The companies spent years extracting methane from coal seams on said land. A court later ruled methane was a different “mineral” from coal and the landowners were owed royalties, which are paid into a state fund. But the landowners have to sue to get the money due to them.
Some landowners are seeking class-action status to get that money, in a case against two gas companies, EQT and CNX. Federal magistrate Judge Pamela Meade Sargent last week recommended such status in the case. In her ruling, Sargent wrote:
“Shockingly, these emails show that the [oil and gas] board, or at least[ Assistant Attorney General Sharon] Pigeon, has been actively involved in assisting EQT and CNX with the defense of these cases, including offering advice on and providing information for use on the motions before the court.”
You can see some of those emails here. Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for the attorney general, said the office merely intervened in the case to defend Virginia law. But you can bet plenty of others are going to have a different interpretation.
Here’s the kicker: CNX is owned by Consol Energy, a conglomerate that has given Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli more than $140,000 in contributions (almost all of them cash) since 2010. In fact, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, Consol Energy is the No. 1 contributor of corporate cash to the Cuccinelli campaign.
Only the Republican Governor’s Association has contributed more money to Cuccinelli’s campaign. And who gave that money to the RGA? Lots of it came from energy interests, including Consol Energy, which dumped $639,000 in the RGA in 2012 alone.
The Associated Press is reporting this afternoon that State Sen. Phil Pucket is A state senator representing southwest Virginia is asking the inspector general to investigate the state attorney general’s office’s role in a dispute over natural gas royalties between two energy companies and the owners of property where the gas was drilled.
The Associated Press is reporting this afternoon that State Sen. Phil Pucket, D-Tazwell, is calling for an inspector general’s investigation of the Attorney General’s Office’s role in the dispute between the companies and the landowners.
Also, the Cuccinelli campaign this afternoon sent out this statement from Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City and chair of the House Commerce and Labor Committee:
“The Attorney General’s office was following one of is core responsibilities and legal obligations: defending the constitutionality of Virginia statutes—in this case, the Virginia Gas and Oil Act. Any suggestion that Attorney General Cuccinelli or his office was involved in any impropriety should be dismissed for the Democrat talking points they so clearly are.”
In an op-ed in Tuesday’s paper, Cuccinelli wrote:
“Of all the assertions made by The Roanoke Times, I reject — in the strongest possible terms — the notion that campaign donations by Consol Energy affected our handling of this case. Consol donates to many Virginia officials, including legislators involved in making Virginia’s energy laws.
Our job is to defend Virginia laws, regardless of who stands to benefit. Consol Energy pushed to have a mine voids bill passed in the 2012 General Assembly session, and I declined to support it.
I have a proven track record of representing the law impartially regardless of whom my donors are.”
Assertions? Really? Those donations are facts.
D.J. Rippert on Bacon’s Rebellion has a different take:
“No doubt the usual Richmond apologists will say that no scandal has been committed since no scandal has been chiseled into stone regarding this matter. Therefore, the fact that a federal judge is railing against the state’s sitting Attorney General for his office’s advocacy of a company which donates heavily to his campaign is irrelevant. That explanation may work for the Richmond elite. However, those of us Virginians living outside the friendly confines of Richmond see something else – a systematically corrupt state government which trades in an almost endless array of gifts, unlimited campaign contributions and crony capitalism.”