ATI wants the emails of a leading climate scientist.
ATI wants the emails of a leading climate scientist.

SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Who's behind the 'information attacks' on climate scientists?

This week, in a courtroom in Prince William County, Virginia, a hearing will take place that could have implications for the privacy rights of scientists at colleges and universities across the country.

It's part of a lawsuit brought by the American Tradition Institute, a free-market think tank that wants the public to believe human-caused global warming is a scientific fraud. Filed against the University of Virginia, the suit seeks emails and other documents related to former professor Michael Mann, an award-winning climate scientist who has become a focus of the climate-denial movement because of his research documenting the recent spike in earth's temperature.

By suing the university, the American Tradition Institute wants to make public Mann’s correspondence in an effort to find out whether he manipulated data to receive government grants, a violation of the state’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.

But a Facing South investigation has found that the Colorado-based American Tradition Institute is part of a broader network of groups with close ties to energy interests that have long fought greenhouse gas regulation. Our investigation also finds that ATI has connections with the Koch brothers, Art Pope and other conservative donors seeking to expand their political influence.

'A Hostile Environment'

Michael MannThe controversy involving ATI began in January, when the group submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to U.Va. seeking documents connected to Mann (photo at left), who now directs the Earth System Science Center at Penn State. After the school was slow to produce the materials, ATI along with Virginia Del. Robert Marshall (R), another global-warming skeptic, filed a lawsuit in May seeking to expedite the documents' release. This week's hearing will consider Mann's motion to intervene in the case in order to protect privacy interests he does not think will be adequately protected by the other parties.

A physicist and climatologist with advanced degrees from Berkeley and Yale, Mann’s research contributed to the "hockey stick graph," which shows a sharp rise in the earth’s temperature in recent years. He was also among those caught up in the so-called "Climategate" controversy, involving emails hacked from a British university that climate skeptics claimed showed global warming was a fraud. Multiple investigations by Penn State, the National Science Foundation's Inspector General, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and British parliament have cleared Mann and others of misconduct and determined that the content of the emails in no way changed the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring as a result of human activity.

Despite those exonerations, however, Mann became the target of a separate ongoing investigation launched last year by Virginia Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a global-warming skeptic who issued civil subpoenas for Mann's emails and other documents. A Virginia judge dismissed the investigation, but Cuccinelli -- who previously challenged the Environmental Protection Agency's finding that greenhouse gas pollution endangers public health -- is now appealing that decision to the Supreme Court of Virginia. ATI is seeking the same documents as Cuccinelli.

ATI's lawsuit has been widely condemned by science, academic and civil liberties groups, who describe it as a politically motivated intrusion into academic freedom. The board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said that such legal challenges "have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas." Earlier this year, public-interest groups including the American Association of University Professors sent a letter to the U.Va. president noting that the Virginia public documents statute expressly exempts scholarly data of a proprietary nature that has not yet been publicly released, published, copyrighted or patented.

"While we need freedom of information laws to hold public officials accountable, the law has exemptions for good reason," said Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the letter's signatories. "Scientists should be able to challenge other scientists’ ideas and discuss their preliminary thinking before their analyses are complete and published."

But ATI has fired back against the scientists and academics, accusing them of taking part in a conspiracy to mislead and defraud the public.

"Once again these self-interested groups -- who hope to protect their billions of dollars in government funding of dubious, unsupportable research -- accuse ATI of 'harassment and intimidation' of scientists," ATI Executive Director Paul Chesser said in a statement. "It shows how blind they are to the fact that ATI has acted in the interest of sound, verifiable science and for the protection of the hard-earned money that taxpayers are forced to relinquish for such research."

ATI's Western roots

atp logoThe American Tradition Institute’s foray into the Virginia case marks the expansion of a controversial group already known for its fierce advocacy on behalf of oil, gas and coal interests in Western states.

The American Tradition Institute was launched in Colorado in February 2009 as the nonprofit Western Tradition Institute, changing its name to ATI last year.  WTI, in turn, was a spinoff of the Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) -- a 501(c)(4) political advocacy group backed by energy interests.

"They are offshoots from the same poisoned roots," said Peter Fontaine, the attorney representing Michael Mann in the ATI lawsuit.

WTP, which has since changed its name to American Tradition Partnership (logo above), describes itself as a "no-compromise grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda." It was first registered as a Colorado nonprofit in 2008 by Scott Shires, a Republican operative with a checkered past: He was fined over $7,000 for campaign finance violations in Colorado, pleaded guilty in a scheme to fraudulently obtain federal grants for developing alternative fuels, and was tied to an illegal gambling ring. WTP was active on behalf of oil and gas industry interests in the 2008 commissioners race in Garfield County, a center of Colorado's energy industry.

Last year, the then-Western Tradition Partnership also backed a Colorado ballot initiative that would have allowed voters to opt out of the state’s renewable energy standard, which requires 30 percent of the electricity produced by investor-owned utilities to come from renewable sources by 2030. WTP missed the filing deadline to put the measure on the ballot, but ATI is picking up the slack: The group has sued Colorado over the standard, and is targeting similar renewable energy promotion programs in Delaware, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico and Ohio.

The groups have not only been fighting on behalf of the energy industry: They’ve also been targeting laws that restrict corporate money in elections and that require disclosure of contributions. In 2009, Western Tradition Partnership sued the city of Longmont, Colo. over their local Fair Campaign Practices Act. The city eventually settled the suit and agreed to drop requirements that political donors have their identities disclosed on campaign advertisements.

And in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, WTP successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Montana Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, which prohibited independent expenditures by corporations to influence political campaigns -- a law originally aimed at powerful mining and railroad interests in the state.

But even while it has fought to weaken election laws, WTP has at times run afoul of them. A decision issued last year by the Montana Commission of Political Practices found that the organization had broken state campaign laws by failing to register as a political committee or properly report its donors and spending. The investigation discovered that the group had solicited unlimited contributions to support pro-mining, pro-logging and pro-development candidates in Montana and avoided disclosing the contributions by passing them along to a sham political action committee that in turn ran attack ads against Democrats.

As Commissioner Dennis Unsworth said in his decision, the group's wrongdoing "raises the specter of corruption of the electoral process."

A window into the climate-denial industry

paul chesserIn the Western Tradition Partnership's Winter 2010 newsletter, the group announced that it changed its name to the American Tradition Partnership. It also reported in an article datelined North Carolina that it had launched the American Tradition Institute, a think tank that would be "battling radical environmentalist junk science head on."

The group would be led by Paul Chesser, who they described as a "noted climate scholar." In fact, Chesser (photo at left) is not a scientist but has long worked in what environmental advocates call the "climate denial machine": a network of organizations, many backed by energy interests, that work to create doubt about the science of human-caused global warming.

According to his bio, Chesser grew up in Rhode Island and worked as an accountant in Los Angeles. He launched his reporting career in North Carolina, where he edited two weekly conservative Christian newspapers, The Raleigh World and The Triad World. Now defunct, the papers were owned by World Newspaper Publishing, whose stated purpose is to "bring journalism informed by a distinctly Christian worldview to major cities across America."

From there, Chesser moved to the John Locke Foundation (JLF), a free-market think tank based in Raleigh, N.C. that has been a leading voice of climate denial in North Carolina. The Locke Foundation decries what it calls "global warming alarmism" and promotes the views of global warming skeptics like Patrick Michaels, who left the climatologist's office at the University of Virginia in 2007 over controversy about his funding sources and fringe views.

The Locke Foundation was founded and is largely funded by Art Pope, a North Carolina millionaire and leading conservative benefactor. As a national director of the free-market advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, Pope has close ties to the Koch brothers, the billionaire owners of the Kansas-based Koch Industries oil and chemical conglomerate and leading funders of global warming denial efforts. The Koch Family Foundations have also contributed at least $70,000 to the Locke Foundation.

It was at the Locke Foundation that Chesser began his crusade against the growing scientific consensus about climate change. He served as an editor of Carolina Journal, the group’s monthly newspaper that relentlessly attacks the science of global warming in its climate coverage. While there he also began working with Climate Strategies Watch, an initiative that sought to discredit the Center for Climate Strategies, a nonprofit group that helps states figure out ways to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

Climate Strategies Watch was a joint project of the Locke Foundation and the Heartland Institute, a corporate-backed think tank in Chicago where Chesser also served as a special correspondent. Heartland has received at least $676,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998. Between 1997 and 2008, they also received $30,000 from foundations connected to the Kochs and another $50,000 from Pope's family foundation. One of Heartland's government-relations advisors also served as Exxon's senior environmental advisor.

Chesser was soon fully immersed in the climate-denial network. He became an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative think tank heavily funded by the Scaife Foundations, which are controlled by the family that owns Gulf Oil. He blogged for the Cooler Heads Coalition, an industry front group led by the Competitive Enterprise Institute -- a fierce opponent of greenhouse gas regulation that has taken over $2 million from ExxonMobil as well as funding from the American Petroleum Institute, Texaco and the Koch, Scaife and Pope foundations. (ATI’s director of litigation, Christopher Horner, is a CEI fellow.)

Now at the American Tradition Institute, Chesser again finds himself speaking for a group largely bankrolled by fossil fuel interests. According to its most recent filing with the IRS, ATI last year received $40,000 from its sister group ATP, which in turn is supported by oil, gas and coal interests. It received another $5,000 from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a Virginia-based think tank that since 1998 has received over $1 million in funding from Exxon Mobil; between 1997 and 2008, Atlas also received $122,300 from the Koch foundations and $735,000 from the Pope foundation.

But ATI's biggest funder is Montana businessman Doug Lair and his Lair Family Foundation; they contributed $5,000 and $135,000 respectively to the group last year -- over 75 percent of its total income.

Lair’s fortune comes from Lair Petroleum, the family business that was sold in 1989 to William Koch, the lesser-known brother of Charles and David Koch. As recently as 2010, Lair Petroleum was listed as Lair’s employer in state campaign finance reports, although now he’s also an investor in commercial and agricultural real estate.

Along with the American Tradition Partnership, Lair and another Montana resident recently filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Montana campaign finance laws, arguing that limits on donation amounts and corporate contributions are impermissible under the First Amendment -- a suit similar to others filed by the group. The plaintiffs are represented by James Bopp Jr., a prominent conservative attorney who worked as a legal adviser to the group behind the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that successfully challenged strictures on corporate money in elections.

"The Supreme Court has ruled that corporate political speech is protected by the First Amendment, and you cannot ban political speech just because the speaker is a corporation," said Bopp.

A chilling trend for academic freedom

The hearing on the American Tradition Institute's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the University of Virginia seeking Michael Mann's records is set for Tuesday, Nov. 1 before Judge Gaylord Finch in Prince William County Court. The hearing was postponed from September after Finch said he wanted to allow more time for arguments because of the case's significance.

"If it wasn't clear before, it should now be clear to everybody," David Schnare (photo at right), pro bono director of ATI's Environmental Law Center, said at the time. "This is an extremely important case, and we appreciate Judge Finch’s careful attention to detail as we proceed."

Critics say the case not only symbolizes the industry attack on climate science but is part of a growing trend of using public information requests to target academics for political reasons.

Earlier this year, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a records request seeking materials from University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon after he criticized Republican Gov. Scott Walker's push for legislation to weaken public-sector unions. Soon after, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy -- a free-market think tank based in Michigan -- submitted Freedom of Information Act requests seeking materials related to the Wisconsin union battle from labor studies faculty at the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State.

In the Cronon case, the University of Wisconsin's Faculty Senate passed a resolution arguing that open records laws are abused when they become partisan tools. "What was begun as a classic notion of sunshine being the best disinfectant has turned into a law that's used as a weapon to target not government officials and offices but individual public employees," said professor Howard Schweber, one of the political scientists who helped craft the resolution.

In the end, the university released some Cronon emails but withheld others, including exchanges with students protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and what it considered private exchanges among scholars. In the Wayne State case, the think tank's action led the university to take down some pages of its Labor Studies Center's website and investigate whether they had violated state campaign finance laws.

The American Tradition Institute is also using open records law to target another prominent and award-winning climate scientist: James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In January, ATI filed a federal FOIA request with NASA seeking information on how Hansen "has complied with applicable federal ethics and financial disclosure laws and regulations, and NASA Rules of Behavior." An outspoken advocate for limiting greenhouse gas pollution, Hansen has long been a target of global-warming skeptics for his research and activism. ATI has sued NASA for withholding documents over concerns about Hansen's privacy rights.

In the upcoming hearing on the U.Va. case, Mann's attorney, Peter Fontaine (photo at left), told Facing South that he will argue his client should be permitted to intervene in the ATI lawsuit because of his personal interest in protecting his private email correspondence with other scientists -- what Fontaine calls the "raw materials of scholarship" that lead to finished science.

"If this information is disclosed and allowed to be cherry-picked, distorted and mischaracterized, it will result in a terrible chilling of the rights of scientists to exchange their ideas," said Fontaine, co-chair of Cozen O’Connor’s energy and climate change programs and an EPA air pollution enforcer in the early 1990s. "It would be a blatant violation of my client's copyrights to his private emails, as well as his First Amendment rights and the right to academic freedom."

Fontaine faces a formidable adversary in ATI’s Schnare, who holds advanced science degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and worked as an attorney with the Department of Justice and Virginia Attorney General before serving in the same EPA air-pollution enforcement job as Fontaine from 1999 until his retirement four months weeks ago. Schnare dismissed the idea that the lawsuit is targeting Mann or his scholarly position on climate science, and said he plans to argue that the professor should not be allowed to intervene.

"This case is about FOIA, not Mike Mann," Schnare said. "If he had wanted to protect himself from embarrassing emails, he should not have pressed 'send' to begin with."

(PHOTOS: Michael Mann by Greg Grieco via Wikipedia, Paul Chesser via John Locke Foundation website, David Schnare from ATI website, Peter Fontaine from Cozen O’Connor’s website.)

ATI wants the emails of a leading climate scientist.
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The first time I feel like I

The first time I feel like I truly did a scientific task was in tenth grade chemistry lab. Our teacher instructed us to keep track of everything we did, and record every step of our thought processes. He told us that if other scientists were to look at our papers, they should be able to tell what it is that we did, and also know how to replicate it, and I have been following that ever since. It is unfortunate that everything the people mentioned above are doing goes against scientific principles.

A simple analogy.

I'm not sure what your point is, but Dr. Mann's work and all of his data has been peer reviewed, analyzed, critiqued, and replicated almost to no end, and every time it's come out the same as if he had done it himself all over again. All this has been done by critics and allies and everyone in between.

Let's go into an analogous situation with your chemistry class, as if your teacher did all he or she could to keep the school administrators from obtaining all of your private correspondence--anything and everything that had anything to do with school--simply because they weren't happy with the results of your "scientific task."

KISS principle

As in "Keep It Simple, Stupid". First and foremost, if you take public money to do research, everything you do connected with that research in any way becomes public property. And whatever agenda anyone may have who files the FOIA request becomes immaterial.

Second, as has been said several times already, all good scientists keep proper records of their technical work, and those data must then be available to others to review, since review by others (whether objective or subjective) is a key part of scientific practice.

This level of obstructionism by the school and Dr. Mann is shocking, and certainly makes one wonder what it is that they are so terrified of letting others see. They are defying the law and logic, and deserve no defense.

BTW, I am a degreed and practicing scientist, and every paper or article I have ever delivered contained original data for open review by others.

You said: "every paper or

You said:
"every paper or article I have ever delivered contained original data for open review by others."

Are emails from your personal and work related accounts also provided for open review?

Fossil fuel industry front groups harassing scientists

"And whatever agenda anyone may have who files the FOIA request becomes immaterial."

That's baloney. The agenda is EVERYTHING. Is it to get at the truth? Or is it used for the purpose of intimidation, or cause distraction and delays and so much sturm und drang to hamper the scientist from doing science? Or is to simply gather information in an attempt to forge a case to discredit or defame?

"I am a degreed and practicing scientist..."

Somehow I doubt that. No reputable scientist would accede to demands of corporate and political front groups to partake in a fishing expedition in hopes of finding evidence, concerning that person, of any disreputable activity. Now I'm beginning to wonder if you even read the article. Dr. Mann, and countless other climate scientists who have undergone attempts to harass or discredit them, has had his work vetted, researched, peer reviewed, and replicated to the satisfaction of all those who are unbiased (and otherwise) and qualified to review the data, and no instances of anything close to fraud has ever been found. If you were really a scientist you would know that peer review has been satisfied, and that any non-scientific organization, which is obviously digging for dirt, has no interest in the process of scientific inquiry.

"...and every paper or article I have ever delivered contained original data for open review by others."

Dr. Mann's original data has never been withheld from review. What (or who) has put that idea into your head? His data is probably the most scrutinized data that's ever been reviewed since Isaac Newton. It's sad to say, but I've come to the conclusion that you have no idea what you are talking about.

Any honest scientist would be

Any honest scientist would be proud to show their work and have it critcized, so as to advance the field. Failure to show the original data is pure fraud. Period.

It is impossible to peer review the work without the original data. Without peer review, it is science fiction.

Cry academic freedom all you want, any logical person with the slightest background in science, sees right trough it.

I applaud the author's

I applaud the author's describing the goal of ATI as "want[ing] the public to believe human-caused global warming is a scientific fraud." It's important to not assume that ATI believes this, and even more important to not give credence to the idea that they are trying to educate the public (i.e., make their beliefs more harmonious with the facts).

The "American Tradition

The "American Tradition Institute" is about 'rape & loot', 'law of the jungle' deregulation extremism.
Ruinous economic barbarism.
Which is inherently NOT conservative.
Lunatic anarchy reserved exclusively for the sake of the privileged, STUPID & cynical few.
An absolute license to loot & destroy everything & leave a wake of utter desolation in their path.
It is about BLIND pursuit of money, while recklessly, dangerously, suicidally ignoring all the other MORE important things.
Like the things even these overpaid, lying, tax-dodging parasites depend on for living existence.
Real Conservatives start from as neutral a starting point as possible. They listen to all sound, evidence based arguments before rashly leaping to any conclusions.
ATI is about a bunch of activist, radical, agenda-driven, sick, twisted, money hungry parasites,
who could care less about a judicious examination of fact & truth.
Using every low, unseemly tactic they can dredge up from their sewer minds.
Aggressive, zealot, psychopaths in action are NOT in any way shape or form conservative.
They are radically dangerous to us all.
They are both dangerous & treasonous to all the founding principles of the American nation.

Need More FOIA Not Less

We really need to see far more of what is going on behind closed doors in academia, not less! What do they have to hide? Why have they spent over $1 million to avoid the FOIA request?

And what is wrong with politically motivated requests? Arent all of them political at some level? Sunlight is still the best disinfectant. Those who pretend to now be holier than thou, trying to protect some supposed sanctity are only defending the status quo.

Your generation grew up rejecting the 'establishment' of your parents. Now that you are grown up, you are the establishment. You have become that which you despised. Don't you see that?

Let the information be free. What are they hiding?

More FOIA Requests

Gosh, Anon. You are right. We need more FOIA requests. Particularly, on ATI, WTP, et al.

Go for it. Now turn over

Go for it. Now turn over Mann's secrets.

Free-market advocates

Why is it that free-market outfits are so often involved in rent-seeking and other attempts to manipulate the markets? I guess Free = Gamed to them. I wish there would be a wave of outlets that would do nothing but track this particular hypocrisy--and there'd need to be a tall wave given the frequency of it.

Thank you for the gritty journalism. There's too little of it these days.

Dan Hill

Re: I think it really all began

UVA responded to Greenpeace exactly the same way they responded to ATI. The only difference is that Greenpeace didn't pony up the money and then whine about the University doing its job by carefully reviewing the material to make sure that it didn't release material that was protected by law.

The reason Mann had to intervene was that UVA agreed to turn over any disputed documents to ATI's lawyers (who also happen to be ATI fellows) for review. This is a non-standard arrangement in such cases and highly dubious given the nature of the relationship between the plaintiff (ATI) and its Lawyers. (They are one in the same)

But I would be happy for Mr Anonymous to back up his assertion that UVA handled the initial requests differently or was happy to "destroy the career" of Michaels. If anything, they have at this point offered to give ATI far more than they were willing to give Greenpeace.

According to the following

According to the following account you are incorrect. Pat Michaels' information was going to be released. It is clearly stated that Marshall (ATI) filed FOIA on Mann when they learned that Greenpeace's request on Michaels' information was being fulfilled by UVA.

"Marshall (ATI) made an initial FOIA request for Mann's records about a year ago when he learned UVA was in the process of fulfilling a similar petition from the activist group Greenpeace for materials relating to another former professor, Patrick Michaels. When UVA denied Marshall, Michaels asked the school about the Greenpeace request and was told "some people's records are treated differently than others."

6th paragraph at this link.

Your source is incorrect

You are claiming that UVA was going to release the information based on a qoute relaying hearsay?

The simple fact is that UVA sent Greenpeace a bill and said this is what it will cost for us to go through the requested documents and determine which can be released and which connot be released. Greenpeace declined to pay, so no more happened. UVA made the exact same response to ATI; The difference being that ATI continued negotiating and started to pay in installments.

While UVA did send some material to Greenpeace that it could supply at little to no cost, the info they sent was publically available and they provided similar material to ATI.

But don't believe me, look at the actual letters to and from from UVA for both Greenpeace and the ATI. They can all be found here:

There you go, actual facts from primary sources, not misinterpreted hearsay.

re: Greenpeace, Mann

It also appears that U Va did not send materials to Greenpeace at all, contra prior comments here, and was responsive to the FOIA requests regarding Mann:


Greenpeace FOIA

According to Steve Milloy of, the Greenpeace
FOIA request was submitted after the ATI one against Mann.

So it appears that you have the facts completely backwards,
or that Steve Milloy does.

Non-anonymously yours,



Kudos to Sue Sturgis for an extremely well-researched and well-written investigative report.

Recommend that you submit it to SourceWatch for posting there.

I think it really all began

I think it really all began when Greenpeace submitted an FOIA for Patrick Michaels' emails from UVA. The University didn't give a rat's behind about protecting Patrick Michaels, as they were preparing the information to give to Greenpeace. It wasn't until the same request was made of UVA for Mann's emails and data that UVA became all noble about protecting acedemic freedon.

People see this going on and it is very clear that the university was happy to destroy the career of one researcher that they politically hated but then were willing to selectively protect a political comrade. It's not news that political corruption exists in this situation and to pretend that the university is some noble institution protecting a poor victimized scientists is a joke. Those that defend such blatant political bias are also a joke. All records should be available. If a scientists doesn't want his data and emails to be made public, then don't accept public money.

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