Updated | 4:55 p.m. A judge in Virginia has dismissed a request by the state’s attorney general for records related to the research of a former climate scientist at the University of Virginia. The attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, vowed immediately to try again with a new subpoena.
Cuccinelli had been investigating the climate scientist, Michael Mann, for possibly defrauding taxpayers with false research. Cuccinelli’s claims were based in large part on private emails by Mann and other climatologists that were hacked and posted online last year that seemed to suggest Mann had deliberately concealed or falsified data.
But several expert panels, as well as two investigations by Pennsylvania State University, Mann’s current employer, have cleared Mann and found that the emails were distorted and taken out of context. Mann himself explained the meaning of the most controversial phrases in the emails — “trick” and “hide the decline” — in an interview with Need to Know last week.
In his decision on Monday, Albemarle County Judge Paul Peatross wrote that the attorney general had failed to present “a reason to believe” Mann had lied or manipulated data in order to obtain public grant money, a violation of Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. Peatross added that he “understands the controversy regarding Dr. Mann’s work on the issue of global warming. However, it is not clear what he did that was misleading, false or fraudulent in obtaining funds from the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
The University of Virginia, which had fought the attorney general’s request, praised the ruling in an emailed statement. “In reaching its conclusion, the court made several important findings,” the University said, including “that the attorney general failed to sufficiently support any allegation that Dr. Mann engaged in fraudulent conduct,” and that “academic freedom should inform the propriety of an inquiry into the conduct of University faculty.”
Cuccinelli noted that the judge had dismissed his request for documents “without prejudice,” meaning that the attorney general could reissue his subpoena in an attempt to satisfy the court’s concerns and comply with the ruling.
“I am pleased that the judge has agreed with my office on several key legal points and has given us a framework for issuing a new civil investigative demand to get the information necessary to continue our investigation into whether or not fraud has been committed against the commonwealth,” Cuccinelli said in a statement. “We are going to issue a new CID that conforms to the judge’s ruling. We will also take time to fully examine the decision and all of the available options before deciding whether or not to also appeal aspects of the ruling.”
Marian Anderfuren, a spokesperson for the University of Virginia, said in response that the University had “fully expected” Cuccinelli to continue his investigation, and noted that any future subpoenas would be constrained to a much more limited range of records. ”If he pursues it, we expect the grounds to be a lot narrower,” Anderfuren said.
In the interview with Need to Know last week, Mann called the investigation “criminal harassment,” and warned that it could set a “horrifying” precedent. “It would basically mean that politicians would have license to harass scientists who are engaged in research that might be inconvenient to their political beliefs,” Mann said.
He added: “It’s basically a return to the McCarthyist witch hunts of decades ago.”
Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, hailed the ruling as “a victory for scientific discovery,” and added that she hoped Cuccinelli would end his investigation rather than press ahead with a new subpoena.
“Independent scientists have repeatedly reviewed Dr. Mann’s work and found no evidence of wrongdoing. Ken Cuccinelli is targeting Mann because he disagrees with the scientist’s conclusions,” Grifo said in a statement. “Hopefully, Cuccinelli will now stop wasting taxpayer dollars on this misguided crusade against a good scientist.”