RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia state senator said Monday he is seeking an investigation into the role of the attorney general's office in a natural gas lawsuit after a federal judge wrote she was shocked a lawyer from that office was assisting two energy companies being sued by landowners for gas royalties.
Sen. Phillip P. Puckett is a Democrat whose southwestern district encompasses landowners who are suing the companies. He said he is asking the inspector general's office to investigate if the attorney general's office had violated any laws or ethics rules.
Puckett noted that one of the companies, CNX Gas Co., is owned by Consol Energy Inc., which had donated $100,000 to the Republican gubernatorial campaign of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
"The attorney general of Virginia or any elected officer of the state, including me, should be doing the right thing for the people that we serve and not be on the side of someone else just because of campaign contributions or any other reasons," Puckett said in a conference call.
"I think it's time we clear the air," he said.
In a statement, Cuccinelli rejected "in the strongest possible terms" the suggestion that Consol donations influenced his office's handling of the case.
"Our job in this case and others is to defend Virginia laws, regardless of who stands to benefit," he said.
In an opinion issued Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Pamela Meade Sargent cited emails between an assistant attorney general and EQT Production Co. and CNX, Pittsburgh-area energy companies. The attorney, Sharon Pigeon, advises the Virginia Gas and Oil Board.
Sargent wrote: "Shockingly, these emails show that the board, or at least Pigeon, has been actively 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 the court."
The passage was in an opinion in which Sargent recommends that the case of several landowners be certified as a class action involving thousands of property owners and tens of millions of dollars in royalties.
Cuccinelli, who issued the lengthy statement hours after Puckett's call for an independent investigation, said his office has a narrow interest in the case: defending the constitutionality of the Virginia Gas and Oil Act.
"The act allows the property owners to share in the gas production royalties," Cuccinelli wrote. "As a longtime property rights advocate, I wanted to protect that law and the interests of the property owners."
But an attorney for the landowners said the emails "show vigorous support" by Pigeon for the defendant gas companies, separate from the constitutionality of the law, which dates to 1990.
The emails involve correspondence between Pigeon and attorneys defending the gas companies. While the context is not clear in many, one involves a thank you message from one gas company attorney and Pigeon's response: "Now use it in response to the Motion to Certify a Class Action!"
"It is shameful, really," Don Barrett, an attorney for the landowners, wrote in an email to the AP.
EQT has declined comment on Sargent's written comments, while CNX has not responded to multiple telephone messages and emails.
The dispute dates back more than a decade involves thousands of wells the companies drilled in southwest Virginia to remove methane gas from coal seams. The landowners represented by Barrett and a team of lawyers in Abingdon argue they were cheated out of nearly $30 million or more of royalties by the EQT and CNX.
They are also seeking punitive damages.
The inspector general's office did not respond to messages left by The Associated Press.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap