VIRGINIA

Cuccinelli spokesman: No wrongdoing in natural gas lawsuit

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Virginia attorney general's office fought the disclosure of emails that ultimately led to a judge's rebuke and a state inspector general's investigation, court records show.

U.S. Magistrate Pamela Meade Sargent said in court papers earlier this summer that she was shocked that an assistant attorney general's emails seemed to offer legal advice to lawyers for two energy companies facing a class-action lawsuit by southwest Virginia residents over nearly $30 million in natural gas royalties. Her criticism prompted the ongoing investigation by the state's independent government watchdog.

The probe has become an issue in Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's gubernatorial campaign, which has received more than $100,000 from the parent company of one of the energy companies. Democrat Terry McAuliffe faces troubles of his own - a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of how the electric-car company he founded used a foreign investor visa program.

Documents filed in federal court in Abingdon show that Cuccinelli's office opposed the landowners' motion to obtain the emails from Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pigeon, who represents the Virginia Gas and Oil Board, to lawyers for EQT Production Co. and CNX. State Solicitor General Earle Duncan Getchell Jr. tried to assert a privilege known as the "common interest doctrine," which allows confidential communications between attorneys who represent separate clients but share a common interest in the case.

The court had allowed the attorney general's office to intervene in the lawsuit to defend the constitutionality of the Virginia Oil and Gas Act, which deals with distribution of royalties. Sargent wrote, however, that entries in EQT's email log "make no mention of any discussion or exchange of information regarding the constitutionality of the Act." She ordered the release of the emails to the landowners' lawyers.

After getting her own look at the emails, Sargent wrote: "Shockingly, these emails show that the Board, or at least Pigeon, has actively been involved in assisting EQT and CNX with the defense of these cases, including offering advice on and providing information for use on the Motions before this court."

State Democratic Party spokesman Brian Coy criticized Cuccinelli's office for trying to keep the emails confidential.

"The attorney general would not have had to fight so hard to keep his communications a secret if those communications were advocating for southwest Virginia landowners instead of against them," he said.

Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said the office was merely protecting an important legal principle that allows lawyers to communicate about shared interests without those discussions being shared with third parties.

"The common interest doctrine is used all the time and doesn't usually become an issue because most lawyers respect the privilege and do not attempt to discover communications between other sets of lawyers," Gottstein said.

Patrick Baker, an Appalachian School of Law professor who teaches oil and gas law, said the common interest doctrine is an offshoot of attorney-client privilege and is used frequently.

"If you have multiple parties and they have a common interest, they should be able to share with each other without fear that it will become discoverable," Baker said. "What you see here by the attorney general asserting this doctrine, they believe that the communications are privileged and that they have a right to keep it privileged."

Gottstein said that after Sargent ordered release of the emails, Pigeon allowed plaintiffs' attorneys into her office for weeks to review documents.

"The assertion that there was some attempt to conceal email communication among the attorneys is ridiculous and has absolutely no basis in fact," he said.

The lawsuit involves thousands of wells the companies drilled in southwest Virginia to remove methane gas from oil seams. The landowners argue they were cheated out of millions in royalties, which the Virginia Gas and Oil Board placed in an escrow account until the matter is settled.

Cuccinelli has defended Pigeon's actions and rejected "in the strongest possible terms" any suggestion that campaign donations from Consol Energy, the parent company of CNX, have influenced his office's handling of the case.

Companies facing a class-action lawsuit by southwest Virginia residents over nearly $30 million in natural gas royalties. Her criticism prompted the ongoing investigation by the state's independent government watchdog.

The probe has become an issue in Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's gubernatorial campaign, which has received more than $100,000 from the parent company of one of the energy companies. Democrat Terry McAuliffe faces troubles of his own - a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of how the electric-car company he founded used a foreign investor visa program.

Documents filed in federal court in Abingdon show that Cuccinelli's office opposed the landowners' motion to obtain the emails from Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pigeon, who represents the Virginia Gas and Oil Board, to lawyers for EQT Production Co. and CNX. State Solicitor General Earle Duncan Getchell Jr. tried to assert a privilege known as the "common interest doctrine," which allows confidential communications between attorneys who represent separate clients but share a common interest in the case.

The court had allowed the attorney general's office to intervene in the lawsuit to defend the constitutionality of the Virginia Oil and Gas Act, which deals with distribution of royalties. Sargent wrote, however, that entries in EQT's email log "make no mention of any discussion or exchange of information regarding the constitutionality of the Act." She ordered the release of the emails to the landowners' lawyers.

After getting her own look at the emails, Sargent wrote: "Shockingly, these emails show that the Board, or at least Pigeon, has actively been involved in assisting EQT and CNX with the defense of these cases, including offering advice on and providing information for use on the Motions before this court."

State Democratic Party spokesman Brian Coy criticized Cuccinelli's office for trying to keep the emails confidential.

"The attorney general would not have had to fight so hard to keep his communications a secret if those communications were advocating for southwest Virginia landowners instead of against them," he said.

Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said the office was merely protecting an important legal principle that allows lawyers to communicate about shared interests without those discussions being shared with third parties.

"The common interest doctrine is used all the time and doesn't usually become an issue because most lawyers respect the privilege and do not attempt to discover communications between other sets of lawyers," Gottstein said.

Patrick Baker, an Appalachian School of Law professor who teaches oil and gas law, said the common interest doctrine is an offshoot of attorney-client privilege and is used frequently.

"If you have multiple parties and they have a common interest, they should be able to share with each other without fear that it will become discoverable," Baker said. "What you see here by the attorney general asserting this doctrine, they believe that the communications are privileged and that they have a right to keep it privileged."

Gottstein said that after Sargent ordered release of the emails, Pigeon allowed plaintiffs' attorneys into her office for weeks to review documents.

"The assertion that there was some attempt to conceal email communication among the attorneys is ridiculous and has absolutely no basis in fact," he said.

The lawsuit involves thousands of wells the companies drilled in southwest Virginia to remove methane gas from oil seams. The landowners argue they were cheated out of millions in royalties, which the Virginia Gas and Oil Board placed in an escrow account until the matter is settled.

Cuccinelli has defended Pigeon's actions and rejected "in the strongest possible terms" any suggestion that campaign donations from Consol Energy, the parent company of CNX, have influenced his office's handling of the case.

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