GOP lawmakers continue to press Ellison for answers on use of San Francisco firm in big oil lawsuit

Legislators Harry Niska and Jim Nash suggested the AG's office wasn't transparent with the legislature in its retainment of the private firm to help lead its climate change litigation.

Reps. Harry Niska, left, and Jim Nash. (Minnesota House of Representatives)

Republican legislative leaders in Minnesota are continuing to press Attorney General Keith Ellison for more answers on his office’s use of a San Francisco-based law firm in its “climate deception” lawsuit against the oil industry.

On June 25, state Reps. Jim Nash and Harry Niska co-wrote a letter to Ellison with a list of follow-up questions they have about the Minnesota Office of the Attorney General’s relationship with Sher Edling, which they allege could receive attorney’s fees from the state that “could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars” in the lawsuit, which has been ongoing for four years. It’s the second inquiry the GOP lawmakers have sent to Ellison this year.

In April, Niska, of Ramsey, and Nash, of Waconia, wrote Ellison a letter that included a list of questions inquiring about whether Ellison’s past campaigns included donations from any Sher Edling-related attorneys and whether the Office of the Attorney General had known about a long list of entities that have helped fund the California firm’s involvement in numerous climate change-related lawsuits over the years.

Ellison responded to those questions in an April 29 letter to the GOP legislators, insisting that his office has been transparent in its handling of the lawsuit and its communications with a joint Legislative Advisory Commission that has the authority to review private contracts the attorney general makes with law firms in state-related business. He also said that his office is not aware of whether any Sher Edling attorneys “donated to my re-election campaign.”

Those answers weren’t sufficient for Nash or Niska, a first-term member of the state house and an attorney who specializes in constitutional litigation.

“While we appreciate the response and the information you have shared, the primary question we had centered on [was] why you believe it is appropriate to pay a California law firm what could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars when that firm is already being privately funded by numerous outside interest groups to prosecute this case,” Niska and Nash wrote in the June 25 follow-up communication. “Your response does not address this question.”

The GOP legislators then asked Ellison for answers to the following questions:

  • Did your Office know about the many different entities and individuals funding Sher Edling’s work on climate litigation, and the amount of that funding, when you negotiated the fee agreement with them? Did your Office ask Sher Edling about these outside funding sources, and if so, how did Sher Edling respond?
  • If your Office had this information at the time it signed the fee agreement with Sher Edling, why did it not provide this information to the Legislative Advisory Commission?
  • Why does your Office believe it is appropriate to commit State resources to Sher Edling, when that law firm is already being funded by private interests?

In June 2020 Ellison’s office filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, American Petroleum Institute and a handful of Koch Industries entities alleging they are “major actors” in contributing to climate change.

Several top legal experts and Republican lawmakers have criticized the merits and intent behind the litigation, alleging that Ellison and other Democratic attorneys general are coordinating with Sher Edling and a network of billionaire climate change activists to utilize the litigation as a strategy “to run U.S. energy policy.”

Among those critics is former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr.

Last November Barr authored an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal alleging “progressive activists … are filing massive lawsuits against energy companies in state courts, trying to set national climate policy under the guise of holding companies liable for polluting.” Barr and others have accused Ellison and Sher Edling of acting as ringleaders in the climate change litigation, which has since seen state attorneys general in Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Baltimore and Honolulu file similar claims.

Ellison maintains AG has been transparent in its use of private firm

Last summer the defendants in the litigation petitioned the United States Supreme Court to rule that the federal district court has removal jurisdiction of the case. That petition was filed after the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in March 2023 that Minnesota’s lawsuit should proceed in state court where it was filed.

In January the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Minnesota attorney general’s lawsuit may proceed in state court.

Ellison continues to maintain his office has been transparent to the legislature over the life of the litigation, which eclipsed four years late last month.

“You ask ‘why it was necessary’ to retain Sher Edling, when there are two attorneys at the (Attorney General’s Office) already working on the climate deception case ‘full time,’” Ellison wrote in his April 29 reply letter to Niska and Nash.

“It is incorrect that any attorneys have been working on the case ‘full time’ to date, because the fossil-fuel defendants effectively tied the litigation up for nearly four years in procedural wrangling about the proper venue, which has required only short spurts of briefing.”

“Nevertheless, I engaged Sher Edling to ensure that the AGO has sufficient bench strength to handle the case in discovery and trial,” Ellison continued. “The defendants in the case have currently engaged seven law firms, and more than a dozen attorneys are representing the defendants.”


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.