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No one at the briefings could recall Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pigeon being present.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli
Saturday, June 15, 2013
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was briefed on a lawsuit in which landowners were seeking payment for natural gas from two large energy companies, a case in which a federal judge sharply criticized an assistant attorney general’s help for the firms.
The briefings, by senior members of Cuccinelli’s staff, came during a period in which the state had formally intervened in the case, seeking to defend provisions of the Virginia Gas and Oil Act, spokesman Brian Gottstein said this week.
Gottstein said neither Cuccinelli, nor senior counsel Stephen McCullough, nor deputy attorney general Rick Neel remember the assistant attorney general, who would later be criticized for her actions, being involved in those briefings.
Records of the U.S. District Court in Abingdon include an August 2012 email from Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pigeon to Consol Energy lawyer Jonathan Blank offering suggested arguments for the company, and complaining about the landowners’ failure to appeal a permit, saying: “How many chances do they get?”
In an August 2011 email to attorneys from both Consol and EQT, the other firm involved in the dispute with landowners, she suggested they tell the judge that Virginia had a new arbitration system set up for royalties disputes. She praised one of EQT’s lawyer’s briefs but offered some tweaks in a December 2010 email, and when that lawyer thanked her for forwarding a file in October 2011, replied “Now use it in response” to landowners’ requests that the judge approve making their case a class action lawsuit.
“Shockingly, these emails show that the [oil and gas] board, or at least Pigeon, has been actively involved in assisting EQT and [Consol subsidiary ] CNX with the defense of these cases, including offering advice on and providing information for use on the motions before the court,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Pamela Meade Sargent said.
Consol is a major contributor to Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial campaign, giving more than $111,000 . The company donated $32,000 to his successful 2009 campaign to be attorney general. The other firm involved in the dispute has not been a donor. Cuccinelli has said donations had nothing to do with the position his office took in the matter.
Gottstein said Pigeon’s actions in the case, in which the state had formally intervened, was to help resolve a complex question of rights to gas in coal mines.
Pigeon is the lawyer for the Virginia Gas and Oil Board, the state agency that will eventually distribute royalties on the gas and “represents the board’s interest in getting gas ownership issues resolved sooner rather than later, so that the royalties can be released to their rightful property owners,” Gottstein said.
Her emails to the companies’ lawyers were appropriate because she and they were making similar arguments to the court about the state’s Gas and Oil Act, Gottstein said.
Pigeon also wanted to make the point that if the case became a class action, it would not necessarily resolve the individual gas ownership issues that now block release of royalties, Gottstein said.
Pigeon’s role in the case has become an issue in Cuccinelli’s bid to become Virginia’s next governor, with Democratic legislators calling for an investigation and arguing it shows Cuccinelli tends to side with big business against the interest of ordinary Virginians.
Cuccinelli had looked into the issue of gas royalties before.
He drafted legislation aimed at getting property owners’ royalties released in 2011, which would have set a formula for distributing pooled royalties, declared that mineral rights revert to the surface landowner if the rights are unused for 35 years and set up a hearing officer program to allow the Gas and Oil Board to order payment of royalties.
Gottstein said Cuccinelli had thought state Sen. Phillip Puckett, D- Russell County, would carry that bill, but he did not. Puckett, who has called for an investigation into Cuccinelli’s role in the lawsuits, sponsored legislation the year before saying landowners had the right to gas from a coal vein even when they had sold mineral rights to the coal itself.
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