IG: Assistant acted improperly; Va. AG not aware

Published on NewsOK Modified: October 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm •  Published: October 15, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — An assistant state attorney general improperly advised two energy companies on how to defend themselves against class-action lawsuits filed by southwest Virginia landowners, but she did so without her bosses' knowledge, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Inspector General's Office.

Inspector General Michael F. A. Morehart wrote that the attorney "inappropriately used commonwealth resources in support" of private litigation and provided legal strategy to the two companies.

The attorney, whose name was redacted in the report, claimed she was involved in the litigation to defend the constitutionality of a law that is at the center of the case.

The class actions have been filed by attorneys representing landowners who say they were cheated out of tens of millions of dollars in royalties by the companies, which had drilled for coalbed methane gas on their properties.

The inspector general's report said it uncovered no evidence that the assistant AG received instructions from her bosses at the Attorney General's Office and that she acted alone.

A spokesman for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor, said the report backs what Cuccinelli has said all along.

"Attorney General Cuccinelli had no prior knowledge of the content of these emails and he did not authorize them," spokesman Brian Gottstein said. "The attorney general has, however, taken steps to ensure this doesn't happen again."

The investigation was sparked by the assistant attorney general's email correspondence with EQT Production Co. and CNX Gas Co., which prompted a federal magistrate to write in June that she was shocked by the advice to the companies on how to fight the lawsuits. U.S. Magistrate Pamela Meade Sargent identified the assistant state attorney in court papers as Sharon Pigeon, counsel for the Virginia Gas and Oil Board.

Morehart examined dozens of emails from Pigeon to the companies and found that while some pertained to the constitutionality of a state law, others offered advice to the energy companies on how to defend themselves in the class actions.

In one of the emails, for instance, she "provided advice to the defense counsel on how to defeat a claim to coalbed methane against the energy companies ... based on procedural challenges that (she) believed could be filed in a state court proceeding."

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