Lawsuit challenges Bloomberg link to MN attorney general office

Doug Seaton, president of the Upper Midwest Law Center.
Doug Seaton, president of the Upper Midwest Law Center, claims a lawyer in Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office is a political plant at a press conference on Wednesday.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Updated: Aug. 15, 7:37 a.m. | Posted: Aug. 14, 2:14 p.m.

A nonprofit Minnesota law firm is suing DFL state Attorney General Keith Ellison over the arrangement that brought a particular lawyer into his office in June.

The lawyer, Pete Surdo, is working for Ellison under a fellowship program with the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at New York University’s School of Law.

The center was funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg in 2017 to address climate issues.

Similar fellowships underway in other states have also prompted legal challenges.

“This isn’t a fishing expedition. We know these lawyers are there,” said Doug Seaton, president of the Upper Midwest Law Center.

Seaton’s client is Energy Policy Advocates, a nonprofit organization based in Washington state.

During a State Capitol news conference Wednesday, Seaton said the lawsuit filed in Ramsey County seeks to illuminate a connection that he contends is improper and unethical.

“We think this is a hijacking of a public office by someone who happens to be a very wealthy political donor who has his own political agenda to pursue,” he said. “We think it should be apparent to all that that’s not an appropriate thing for the AG’s office to do.”

Seaton also claims the arrangement runs afoul of a state law that requires all lawyers in the attorney general’s office to be paid by the state.

Ellison said the lawsuit is without merit. He said his office has already provided the plaintiffs with all the publicly available data that was requested. The requests were made two weeks ago, according to copies of emails provided by the attorney general’s office.

Ellison also defended his participation in the fellowship program.

“Minnesotans are living with the effects of pollution, environmental injustice and climate change every day, and they expect an attorney general who enforces environmental law," Ellison wrote. "My office is happy to accept the assistance of New York University law school to help me advance the cause of environmental stewardship. We can legally accept their help and we are honored do so."

Correction (Aug. 15, 2019): An earlier version of this story misspelled Pete Surdo's name.