As you can read here, retired Albemarle County (Virginia) Circuit Judge Paul Peatross has ruled that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli may not have access to records under Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, as he seeks to determine the propriety of Michael “Hockey Stick” Mann’s claims made to obtain research funding. Judge Peatross’s ruling protects Mann, the University, and specifically the Department of Environmental Sciences, at least for now.
Here’s the rub, on which I will have more to say. I attended the hearing a week ago Friday at which the parties argued the University’s motion to dismiss. The Deputy AG Wesley Russell’s arguments dominated, so badly I almost felt sorry for the University. The judge’s queries were puzzling, as he pleaded with the University’s counsel to come up with some argument how he might rule in their favor, as were other comments (continue reading).
Before the hearing commenced Peatross, substituting for the vacationing chief judge, cited his wife’s 1982 degree in environmental science from UVA — oddly, he then said “but not in global warming” — as part of a rather spare recitation of why he was hearing of this case (which he attested he had never heard about until reading the briefs that morning. A prominent case in the local, state and national news assigned to his old court! This man takes his retirement seriously…), and articulating his history so that counsel might decide whether he carried any conflict such that he should not hear the University’s motion.
That fact of her 1982 degree from Mann’s former Department, apparently, was relevant. Okay. But…
The fact that the judge’s wife had in fact previously worked in that Department of Environmental Sciences — the very Department that stands to suffer should he have ruled in favor of the Attorney General — was somehow not worth disclosing to counsel.
I only learned of this after the hearing by others who had also worked at the same time Ms. Peatross did, in messages expressing astonishment that her husband would decide such a matter given the obvious appearance of an inability to objectively hear it.
Also not worth disclosing was that Ms. Peatross’s relationships go much deeper, being, e.g., lauded for her role in producing a book edited by the Department’s then-chairman during Mann’s alleged hijinks, as well as, it appears, at least two of his papers.
But that she has a degree from the Department in 1982 merited consideration in determining the judge’s suitability to hear the case. And only that.
Now, to be completely accurate, it is an open question whether Ms. Peatross worked for the Department of Environmental Sciences, or simply in the building, physically (which I am told with no doubts that she did), for one of two particular former colleagues of Mann’s (and one supervisor at the relevant times) in their consultancies. The latter response, if it were the case, would beg other questions about mixing research and consulting. Which is to say, there is no good answer to the question. Which may be why the University refused to answer it when I asked. Four times. The two former colleagues of Mann for whom Ms. Peatross worked, according to a very basic Google search, also declined my invitation to clarify.
Charlottsville (I live here) is indeed the epitome of a company town — with UVA the company — as is surrounding Albemarle County. An adverse ruling leading to release of Mann’s relevant documents was the biggest possible black eye for a university that zealously promotes its prestige derived, in part, from Thomas Jefferson having founded it…a history the school’s lawyers rather sadly invoked up front in their brief arguing that, while some people are subject to laws, others simply cannot suffer the indiginity (if you’re thinking “Hollywood and Roman Polanski”, I’m way ahead of you). Well, of course. It’s on Jefferson’s headstone up on the hill, no doubt.
But while that particular argument of “academic freedom” did not prevail, the University did nonetheless manage to persuade Judge Peatross to block the taxpayer from discovering whether the University’s employee, Mann, engaged in fraud on the taxpayer. Again, this is for now as, according to press reports, Mr. Cuccinelli intends to press on with a new civil investigative demand (CID). It was not a complete victory for the University but, if you attended argument and/or read the briefs, you know such an outcome was not a consideration.
However that turns out, this series of events at best provides a very uncomfortable appearance of failure to disclose. Indeed, it seems to clearly rise to the level of a basis for the judge to recuse himself, instead of asking counsel, in his presence, whether they thought he was possibly biased.
The last thing our institutions of government need right now is more reason to question their operation. This is unfortunate and could easily have been avoided. Having read Cuccinelli’s briefs and seen his Deputy argue rings around the school and its hapless case for hiding the truth, I feel the truth will inevitably out, if later and after more wrangling than was necessary.