Lower court denied claim of ‘accountant-client’ privilege
N.Y. attorney general seeks files in a fraud investigation
Exxon Mobil Corp.’s attempt to use "accountant-client privilege" to avoid handing over audit documents in a politically charged climate-change probe was dealt a final blow by New York’s top court.
The finding on Tuesday affirms a 2016 ruling that Exxon must comply with a subpoena by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is investigating whether investors were misled about the possible impact of climate change on the energy company’s business.
Schneiderman had sued Exxon and its auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, seeking documents about the accounting and reporting of oil and gas reserves, the evaluation of assets for potential impairment charges or write-downs, as well as energy-price projections and projected carbon-cost estimates.
“Exxon had no legal basis to interfere with PwC’s production," Schneiderman said Tuesday in a statement. “Our fraud investigation continues to move full speed ahead, despite Exxon’s continued strategy of delay.”
Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri declined to comment on the decision. Caroline Nolan, a spokeswoman for PwC, also declined to comment.
Schneiderman in June revealed detailed findings from the two-year probe, including what he called "significant evidence" that Exxon may have used two sets of numbers -- one public and one secret -- to calculate the impact of global warming on its reserves. Exxon then accused the attorney general of wildly distorting how it calculates those numbers.
Exxon’s separate lawsuit against Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who is also investigating, seeks to derail the two probes. That case was moved by a Texas judge to New York federal court, where the dispute has largely gone back to square one.
Exxon argues the investigations by the two Democratic attorneys general were politically motivated, and that the states had conspired with environmentalists to reach a conclusion about the company’s actions before the probe had begun.
Schneiderman has said there was nothing inappropriate about his meetings with environmentalists, and that the probe was justified by evidence the company had differing private and public stances on the reality of climate change.
The dispute is heating up as Republicans in Washington consider their next step after Schneiderman said in February he’d ignore a subpoena issued in a related congressional probe by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which also seeks to derail his investigation.