Responding to records release order, AG says there are no records

TJ Donovan
Attorney General TJ Donovan. File photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger
After fighting for a year not to release documents to a Washington-based nonprofit, the Vermont attorney general’s office now says there are no relevant records.

Chief Assistant Attorney General Bill Griffin responded late Monday to a July court order that the state turn over records relevant to a request by the Energy and Environment Legal Institute. The organization sought information related to a potential probe of Exxon Mobil.

“Our search did not identify any records responsive to your request,” Griffin wrote.

The letter surprised Matthew Hardin, lawyer for the organization, who described it as an “incoherent response.”

For about a year, the attorney general’s office argued it was not obligated to turn over records, Hardin said. Then the office announced it didn’t have any records to release.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Hardin said.

The Energy and Environment Legal Institute sought records shared by the Vermont and New York attorneys general. When the state rejected a request, Hardin sued.

Bill Sorrell
Former Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell. File photo by Roger Crowley
Former Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell and his New York counterpart were among members of the 19-state Climate Change Coalition. The coalition considered investigating allegations that Exxon Mobil hid research about links between fossil fuel consumption and global warming.

The Vermont and New York attorneys general established an agreement under which they could share information with each other but it would be shielded from disclosure requirements while they prepared to sue. Ultimately, no lawsuit was filed.

When the Energy and Environment Legal Institute requested documents the two attorneys general shared, Vermont issued a broad denial.

A Washington County Superior Court judge in July ordered the attorney general’s office to turn over public records to the organization. The state had 30 days to comply.

The attorney general’s response to the court was sent late Monday evening, the deadline under the judge’s order.

Hardin expected the state would either hand over relevant records or appeal the court’s decision. “They chose neither,” he said.

According to Hardin, it’s unclear how the office determined there were no pertinent records to release.

“I don’t know what to believe because I don’t know what they did,” he said.

According to the letter, the attorney general’s office reviewed files of current employees and worked with the Agency of Digital Services to search files of former employees.

Griffin did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday afternoon.

The attorney general’s office did release some documents Monday. The emails show communication between several attorneys general offices about public records requests the Energy and Environment Legal Institute filed in various states.

The emails show officials from other states communicating about their responses to the records request and setting up a conference call to discuss the requests.

Hardin said he was puzzled by the inclusion of the emails with the state’s letter.

“If they say they don’t have records, then how did they decide to send us what they sent us?” he said.

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