Issue Date: March 12, 2012
Virginia Fraud Probe Cut Off
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 (UVA) 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, subpoenaed the university in 2010 in an attempt to get Mann’s e-mails and other documents to determine whether the researcher committed fraud when obtaining a state research grant. Mann, the developer of the “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 businesses that 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 says. 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 says. In light of the decision, the attorney general says he will drop a second fraud subpoena against UVA that also sought Mann’s records.
Michael Halpern, manager of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program, commends UVA for challenging Cuccinelli’s probe. The court’s ruling means, he says, that “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 says. “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 says. “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 says it spent $570,698 in legal fees to fight the case. The university hired outside counsel to represent it in this matter because UVA’s general counsel is appointed by and answerable to the state attorney general.
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