A nearly yearlong effort by Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II of Virginia to force the University of Virginia to turn over the documents of a prominent climatologist is headed to the stateâs Supreme Court.
In April 2010, Mr. Cuccinelli, a Republican and an outspoken skeptic of climate change caused by human activity, demanded that the university provide a vast trove of academic documents, including computer programs, data and thousands of e-mails to and from the scientist, Michael Mann, now a professor at Penn State.
The attorney general argued that the documents contained potential evidence that Dr. Mann had defrauded the state of hundreds of thousands of dollars by deliberately providing false information in his application for research grants. Dr. Mann denies the charges, and the university has fiercely contested the investigation, calling it an attack on academic freedom.
Last August, a state judge ruled that Mr. Cuccinelli had failed to provide even minimal evidence of fraud in his subpoena and that the attorney general lacked the authority to demand documents tied to federal grants, which supplied the bulk of Dr. Mannâs research funds.
Mr. Cuccinelli appealed the decision, and last week, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
The university has indicated that many of the documents sought by Mr. Cuccinelli are in its possession, and a decision by the court in the attorney generalâs favor would most likely exhaust their legal arguments for withholding them.
But even if the e-mails and data are handed over, the attorney general will face another major hurdle: finding proof of a chargeable offense within them. Failing to uncover any evidence of financial misdealing could substantially validate criticsâ claims that Mr. Cuccinelli has been engaged in an ideologically motivated fishing expedition designed to harass Dr. Mann for his scientific views.
Mr. Cuccinelli maintains that he is not pursuing Dr. Mann for his climate change research, which shows a rapid warming in the late 20th century unprecedented for at least 1,000 years â results that skeptical researchers have challenged. The investigation is about financial improprieties, he says.
But in an interview several months ago, he conceded that his chances of finding evidence of financial fraud in Dr. Mannâs e-mails were indeed low.
âFrankly, I would say the odds are there is nothing like that,â he said. âBut we donât know that.â
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