Attorney general's 'fishing expedition' flounders

September 9, 2010

A bid by a US state's attorney general to investigate whether climate scientist Michael Mann submitted fraudulent grant applications has been dealt a severe blow after a judge turned down his demand to see the relevant documents.

In April, the University of Virginia, where Professor Mann worked between 1999 and 2005, was issued with several "civil investigative demands" by Virginia's attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, requiring it to release documents relating to five grants obtained by Professor Mann, as well as a host of correspondence.

Mr Cuccinelli wanted to check whether the applications had breached the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. However, the university opposed the application, citing concerns about academic freedom.

A judge - Paul Peatross of Albermarle County Circuit Court - has now ruled that although the attorney general is entitled to investigate fraud in grant applications, Mr Cuccinelli has not met the requirement to provide an "objective basis" for suspecting Professor Mann of fraud.

He also said that Mr Cuccinelli could not investigate four of the applications because they were for federal rather than state funding.

Professor Mann, who now works at Pennsylvania State University, said the verdict was "a victory not just for me and the university, but for all scientists who live in fear that they may be subject to a politically motivated witch-hunt when their research findings prove inconvenient to powerful vested interests".

In a statement, Mr Cuccinelli indicates he will submit a new civil investigative demand and is also considering whether to appeal against aspects of the ruling.

But Professor Mann noted that the judge had expressed "deep scepticism" about the legitimacy of the investigation.

"I do not expect the courts would take kindly to any effort on (Mr Cuccinelli's) part to continue to attempt any massive fishing expedition," he told Times Higher Education.

Rachel Levinson, senior counsel of the American Association of University Professors, said she was pleased that the judge had recognised that scientific controversy was not evidence of fraud.

"I think this was the nub of the attorney general's argument, but the judge quite clearly saw that just because other scholars disagree with Professor Mann, that doesn't demonstrate fraud: indeed, that is how the scientific and scholarly process works," she said.

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