EXCLUSIVE: Left-wing nonprofits quietly coordinated a first-of-its-kind investigation into Big Oil led by the New York State Attorney General (NYAG) years ago, sparking dozens of current climate lawsuits, according to newly disclosed internal communications.

The communications — obtained by watchdog group Government Accountability & Oversight (GAO) and shared with Fox News Digital — show Lee Wasserman, the longtime director of the billionaire-fueled Rockefeller Family Fund, and other climate advocates first pitched the idea of subpoenaing oil giant ExxonMobil to then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office in early 2015.

Following months of coordination and dialogue between Wasserman, his associates and NYAG officials, including current New York City District Attorney Alvin Bragg who was leading NYAG’s Social Justice division at the time, Schneiderman subpoenaed ExxonMobil in November 2015. Three years later, the NYAG filed a lawsuit against the multinational oil major, accusing it of fraud and misleading investors on global warming.

“These newly released emails and memos, withheld for seven years, document how outside ideological and political interests convinced law enforcement to launch investigations of political opponents — even over the New York AG Office’s own lawyers’ reservations — in service of a larger, planned lawfare offensive,” Chris Horner, an attorney representing GAO, told Fox News Digital. “They represent a civil libertarian’s nightmare.”


Former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaks to reporters on Aug. 3, 2017, in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Former New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (Getty Images | GAO)

“This dispels beyond doubt the fiction of a ‘missing link’ between outside financial, ideological, and political lobbies and the nationwide campaign of lawfare brought by governmental plaintiffs and their partners in law enforcement,” he added. “It puts the lie to claims that these suits are a series of unrelated, purely local actions: Every single ‘climate’ lawsuit has the DNA of this ‘Patient Zero’ case, weaponizing law enforcement against the ‘climate’ industry’s political opponents.”

According to the documents, which GAO recently received after a multi-year information request lawsuit, the Rockefeller Family Fund’s Wasserman emailed NYAG Environmental Protection Bureau Chief Lemuel Srolovic on Feb. 3, 2015, referencing a meeting they recently had regarding ExxonMobil. In the email, Wasserman requested another meeting with Srolovic where his associates would present a “trove of material.”


That follow-up meeting was scheduled for Feb. 23, 2015, and included other climate activists who had for years argued ExxonMobil deceived the public on the impact of fossil fuels on global warming. The other attendees were former Greenpeace USA Executive Director John Passacantando, Energy and Policy Institute Deputy Director Matt Kasper, Climate Investigations Center Founder Kert Davies and Rockefeller Family Fund adviser Larry Shapiro.

Rockefeller Family Fund Director Lee Wasserman arranges another meeting with lawyers from the New York State Attorney General Office in February 2015.

Rockefeller Family Fund Director Lee Wasserman arranges another meeting with lawyers from the New York State Attorney General Office in February 2015. (Government Accountability and Oversight/Fox News Digital)

“If the [fossil fuel] companies admitted what they know about climate science, it would almost certainly hasten greater regulatory changes to restrict the extraction of fossil fuels,” Wasserman wrote to Srolovic days before the meeting. “In our opinion, their work to confuse the public about the science has mismarked the value of their reserves, which supports their current stock valuations.”

“Even if greater regulation were not to occur, climate change will have meaningful financial consequences, both positive and negative, e.g. inundation of infrastructure and opening of the Arctic and other previously inaccessible places for drilling,” he continued.


Then, one month later, in March 2015, Wasserman sent a memo his organization crafted outlining the legal case against ExxonMobil to then-NYAG Chief of Staff Micah Lasher. Minutes after receiving the Rockefeller Family Fund memo, Lasher then forwarded it to Bragg, Srolovic, NYAG senior lawyer John Oleske and NYAG senior enforcement counsel Steven Glassman.

The memo notably resembles the arguments the state would eventually make in court.

Alvin Bragg at press conference

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg worked for the New York Attorney General Office while it was investigating ExxonMobil. (Luiz C. Ribeiro/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

“The Office of the New York Attorney General should investigate whether leading energy companies are conducting a scam to prop up their share prices by minimizing the risk that climate change poses to their business models,” the memo states. “That risk is simple: energy company valuations are driven by ‘proven reserves’ of oil, gas, and coal.”

“If the reserves cannot be used – because of regulation or an ecological disaster, two very real possibilities – energy stocks must fall,” it adds. “Energy companies prop up their current high valuations by disseminating misinformation about climate change and valuing reserves as if they had no chance of being stranded underground.”

The memo further states that ExxonMobil can be sued for violating the Martin Act of 1921 which grants the NYAG broad powers in investigating potential fraud. And it calls for the NYAG to subpoena the company for its internal climate studies and internal communications related to climate change.


But shortly after the NYAG officials reviewed the memo, Lasher contacted Wasserman, expressing concern about the suggested legal arguments. Still, despite the apparent questions, he said he was committed to pursuing the issue.

“Please do know that I want to find a way on this as much as you do,” he wrote to Wasserman on March 14, 2015. “What you may have heard from me today was a bit of vexed struggle as I balance needing all the help from thought partners as we can get with protecting the prerogatives of our office and the judgment of our attorneys.”

The first page of the revised memo Wasserman sent to New York State Attorney General lawyers in April 2015. The memo came months before the attorney general issued its subpoena in the case.

The first page of the revised memo Wasserman sent to New York State Attorney General lawyers in April 2015. The memo came months before the attorney general issued its subpoena in the case. (Government Accountability and Oversight/Fox News Digital)

Following additional meetings and communications, Wasserman then sent an updated memo to the NYAG office in April 2015.

“Your staff is concerned that the fossil fuel companies might succeed in motions to quash subpoenas aimed at their spreading misinformation about climate change. This fear is misplaced,” the updated memo states. 

“Your office can reduce the chance of motions to quash ever being filed by sending out initial discovery requests without alerting the press,” it continues, explaining how the NYAG can avoid publicity. “Martin Act investigations can be completely confidential, so if a case fails to materialize the inquiry can be abandoned without publicity.”


Former Attorney General Schneiderman eventually issued the subpoena against ExxonMobil on Nov. 4, 2015.

The subpoena roiled the fossil fuel industry and triggered a firestorm from Republican lawmakers led by then-House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who accused New York of attempting to deprive companies of their “First Amendment rights and their ability to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of prosecution.”

Smith then subpoenaed the NYAG in July 2016 for documents related to its investigation of ExxonMobil and potential coordination with environmental groups. Schneiderman, though, rebuffed the subpoena, calling it an “unprecedented effort to target ongoing state law enforcement.”

Maura Healey delivers her inaugural address at the Statehouse

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey delivers her inaugural address on Jan. 5, 2023, in Boston. Healey previously served as the state attorney general. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

In addition, then-Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey similarly subpoenaed ExxonMobil and was herself subsequently subpoenaed by Smith’s committee. Healey also rejected the subpoena.

Schneiderman and Healey touted their efforts in a high-profile press conference in 2016 where former Vice President Al Gore, former Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, former Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, former Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen and former Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell all offered supporting remarks. 

“Today, we’re sending a message that, at least some of us – actually a lot of us – in state government are prepared to step into this battle with an unprecedented level of commitment and coordination,” Schneiderman told reporters at the event, failing to mention his coordination with the Rockefeller Family Fund and other activists.


His office ultimately filed its lawsuit against ExxonMobil in October 2018, accusing it of perpetrating a “longstanding fraudulent scheme … to deceive investors and the investment community … concerning the company’s management of the risks posed to its business by climate change.” 

In late 2019, the Supreme Court of the State of New York threw the case out, characterizing NYAG’s complaint as “hyperbolic.”

Letitia James

New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks during a news conference on Sept. 21, 2022, in New York. James said her office would continue to “continue to fight to end climate change” after the case against ExxonMobil was thrown out of court. (AP Photo/Brittainy Newman, File)

“Despite this decision, we will continue to fight to ensure companies are held responsible for actions that undermine and jeopardize the financial health and safety of Americans across our country, and we will continue to fight to end climate change,” New York Attorney General Letitia James, who assumed the position in January 2019, said after the decision was published.

In an email to Fox News Digital, Wasserman defended his prior coordination with the NYAG, saying his organization has been transparent about its work with the NYAG.


“We have been transparent in noting communications with public officials about Exxon’s climate deception before and after the damning trove of additional documents emerged from the investigative journalists’ reporting,” Wasserman told Fox News Digital.

Wasserman noted that he co-authored a New York Review of Books article in 2016 alluding to his contact with state attorneys general.

“We have also been clear, as indicated in the NYRB piece, that it was up to authorities, not advocates, to judge the merits of any potential case on the law and facts,” he said.

Vic Sher, a partner at law firm Sher Edling, speaking about the climate litigation he is involved in during a virtual panel in December 2021. Sher Edling has filed numerous climate-related lawsuits on behalf of state and city governments since 2016. (American Museum of Tort Law/YouTube)

While the New York case failed, several similar climate cases have been filed against ExxonMobil and other Big Oil companies across the country using many of the same arguments that New York employed.

In particular, the California-based law firm Sher Edling has spearheaded climate-related public nuisance lawsuits nationwide. The firm — which argues in the suits that oil companies are financially responsible for global warming — has filed cases on behalf of Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Minnesota, New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Baltimore, Honolulu and many local governments across the country.


Sher Edling, which was founded in 2016 with the goal of spearheading such litigation, states on its website that its climate practice seeks to hold oil companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell accountable for their alleged “deception” about climate change.

The firm has raised millions of dollars from liberal dark money nonprofits to fund its pursuits. While the entirety of Sher Edling’s funding structure is unknown, the firm has for years taken donations from a pass-through fund managed by the left-wing New Venture Fund, whose individual donors are obscured from public view, meaning donors are able to remain anonymous.

Some of the funding, though, has been traced to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which, like the Rockefeller Family Fund, was founded by members of the Rockefeller family.

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