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Web Date: March 5, 2012

Virginia Court Dismisses Climate-Change Fraud Probe

Academic Freedom: Judge spurns attorney general’s attempt to obtain climate researcher’s records
Department: Government & Policy
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: academic freedom, climate change, UVA
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Cuccinelli
Credit: Virginia Attorney General’s Office
Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II (R)
 
Cuccinelli
Credit: Virginia Attorney General’s Office
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Mann
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Michael E. Mann
 
Mann
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
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Sullivan
Credit: Jane Haley/UVA Public Affairs
University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan
 
Sullivan
Credit: Jane Haley/UVA Public Affairs

Virginia’s highest court has ended a politically charged fraud investigation of a climate-change researcher, denying state Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II (R) access to the scientist’s records.

In the case, the University of Virginia fought to protect the academic freedom of Michael E. Mann, who was an assistant professor of environmental sciences at UVA from 1999 to 2005. Cuccinelli, a climate-change skeptic, sued the university in an attempt to get Mann’s e-mails and other data to determine whether the researcher committed fraud when obtaining a state research grant. Mann, a developer of the formerly contested “hockey stick” graph of historical temperature fluctuations over the past millennium, is now a professor at Pennsylvania State University.

But academic freedom arguments didn’t factor into the Virginia Supreme Court’s March 2 ruling against Cuccinelli. Instead, the court determined that a 2002 Virginia law allows the attorney general to launch fraud investigations against individuals or business who receive state funds—but not against state agencies, including public universities.

“This is an important decision that will be welcomed here and in the broader higher education community,” UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan said. The university argued that Cuccinelli’s probe was an “unprecedented attempt to challenge a university professor’s peer-reviewed data, methodologies, and conclusions” that would “infringe academic freedom and chill scientific debate.”

“We were simply trying to review documents that are unquestionably state property to determine whether or not fraud had been committed,” Cuccinelli said in a statement. In light of the decision, the attorney general said he will drop a second fraud case against UVA that sought Mann’s records.

Michael Halpern, manager of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program, commended UVA for challenging Cuccinelli’s probe. This, he said, means “Virginia will remain a safe place for scientific research, even when elected officials don’t like the results.

“Academic institutions have the responsibility to protect their faculty’s ability to discover new things about our world without fearing harassment,” Halpern said. “Nobody should expect the rough drafts of their work to be subject to the same level of scrutiny as their published research.”

“I’m pleased that this particular episode is over,” Mann said in a statement. “It’s sad, though, that so much money and resources had to be wasted on Cuccinelli’s witch hunt against me and the University of Virginia.”

UVA said it spent $570,698 in legal fees to fight the case. The university hired outside counsel to represent it in this case because UVA’s general counsel is appointed by and answerable to the Virginia attorney general. UVA said it used private funds to pay its legal fees.

 
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