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Climate scientist calls Va. attorney general’s fraud probe ‘harassment’

Ken Cuccinelli, now the Virginia attorney general, during the 2005 state Senate session. Cuccinelli is pursuing a climate scientist for fraud against tax payers. AP Photo/Steve Helber

An influential climate scientist who has been accused by the Virginia attorney general of defrauding the public said Tuesday that the investigation into his work amounted to “criminal harassment,” and warned that the case could set a “horrifying” precedent if allowed to proceed.

Michael Mann, the former University of Virginia researcher whose well-known “hockey stick” graph was one of the first and most powerful displays of rising global temperatures in the industrial era, said in an interview that the attorney general’s probe could open up scientists in any number of fields to a flood of politically motivated lawsuits and investigations.

“It’s very clear that the intent here is to chill scientific inquiry in areas that are inconvenient to some very powerful special interests,” Mann said. “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.”

He added: “It’s basically a return to the McCarthyist witch hunts of decades ago.”

The Virginia attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has filed a civil investigative demand with the University of Virginia, where Mann worked until 2005, requesting “any correspondence, messages or e-mails” between Mann and other prominent climate scientists. Cuccinelli has also asked for any “documents, things or data” that might have been used to support Mann’s applications for grant money. Mann received about $500,000 in public funding while at UVA.

Cuccinelli is using his authority under the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, a Virginia law passed in 2002 that empowers the attorney general to investigate wrongful uses of taxpayer dollars. In court last week, a lawyer for Cuccinelli’s office argued that there was evidence to suggest a “consistent pattern of manipulation of data” in Mann’s work.

The claims are based in large part on hacked e-mails released last year that climate change skeptics say showed a concerted effort by scientists to conceal or manipulate data that might have undercut claims of a link between human activity and global warming. The so-called “Climategate” e-mails included several missives about Mann’s work, in which Mann and his colleagues seemed to suggest that he had used a statistical “trick” to “hide the decline” in global temperatures over the years.

But as several investigations and editorials in scientific journals have shown, the messages were taken out of context, their meaning distorted. Pennsylvania State University, Mann’s current employer, dismissed the claims as unfounded in two separate investigations, and Mann’s work has been upheld as sound by the National Academy of Sciences. A British panel commissioned to investigate the leak of the hacked e-mails also found that they contained no evidence of wrongdoing, as did a committee formed by the British parliament.

Those findings have not deterred Cuccinelli, an avowed climate change skeptic who is also suing the Environmental Protection Agency to block the implementation of tough new federal emissions standards. The EPA declared greenhouse gases a public health risk last year, allowing the agency to regulate emissions under the federal Clean Air Act. Cuccinelli is joining business groups and conservative activists in challenging that determination, and critics say the suit against Mann is an attempt to undermine the science behind the new regulations.

Cuccinelli said in a statement last week that his office had the authority under the law to request Mann’s records, which he said were stored on government databases. He also denied that the investigation was politically motivated. “Our office is investigating whether a false claim was presented to the university to secure payment under government-funded grants,” Cuccinelli said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

Judge Paul Peatross of Albemarle Circuit Court in Virginia has said he will rule on Cuccinelli’s request by the end of the month. Several advocacy organizations filed amicus briefs siding with Mann and the University of Virginia on Friday, including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which argued that the records were protected by the First Amendment. “The attorney general’s approach — investigating a professor on suspicion of fraud simply because his work has sparked political and scientific controversy — could have a grave chilling effect on scholarship and research at universities,” the group wrote in its brief.

Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program, said in a statement that Cuccinelli’s investigation could also touch off a wave of similar probes by public officials across the country. “Calling politically controversial scientific findings ‘fraudulent’ is dangerous,” Grifo said, adding that such charges could undermine the scientific community’s rigorous peer review process.

Mann and other climate scientists, including the editors of the journal Nature in a May editorial, have compared the legal assault on climate science to the strategy of tobacco companies from a decade ago. Major energy companies, they say, have funded think tanks and donated to political campaigns in an effort to undermine the integrity of climate change research, stifling political attempts to curb global warming.

And the tactics have worked, Mann said. Cap and trade legislation seems to have stalled in Congress this year, and last year’s climate change summit in Copenhagen failed to deliver a strong international consensus on how to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

“What we have is a very successful smear campaign that likely stalled progress at a critical juncture,” Mann said of the climate change skeptics. “They’re scratching and clawing and doing everything they can.”

He added: “Some lasting damage has been done.”

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