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Week One: Matt Pawa, the lawyer who partnered with wealthy donors, activists and other profit-seeking plaintiffs lawyers to attack the energy industry and American manufacturers

As the manufacturing sector continues to rebound in the U.S., a major threat looms: activist environmental litigation. Law firms from around the country are targeting energy producers and manufactures.

If there is one person who can be credited for creating the legal strategy underpinning this effort, it is Matthew Pawa, a Boston-based attorney, who spent years testing new theories of liability against corporate America before taking on the energy industry.

The man who so often likes to be behind the scenes is now being put front and center. In this post, we explore his funding sources.

Before Pawa’s law firm won its most prominent environmental case in 2013, it was perhaps better known for more run-of-the-mill tort lawsuits, including suing a company for faulty soup containers and suing various drug companies.[1] These lawsuits helped keep Pawa’s firm afloat; he, however, had a few additional benefactors.

When Pawa set up his law firm in 2001, he also created the Global Warming Legal Action Project (GWLAP), which is designed to bring together state attorneys general, top civil litigators and environmental groups in order to target businesses with environmental litigation. Between 2001 and 2013, GWLAP was paid more than $3 million by wealthy foundations, including the Tides Foundation and other wealthy donors.[2]

The money from these foundations was also funneled through an opaque shell organization, Sustainable Markets Foundation, which is run by some of the same wealthy donors.[3] Sustainable Markets Foundation has nearly $10 million in the bank, even though the organization does not have a website or a staff. It appears that Sustainable Markets has been used to obscure the grants by these foundations.[4]

Last year, many of the wealthy donors’ motives and goals became clearer when an organization very publicly took on energy manufacturers.[5] And a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that the same wealthy donors had hired Pawa to devise their attack strategies.[6] They also brought in his longtime associate, Bill McKibben, as they discussed a plan to coordinate an attack, including a media, legal and activist strategy, to go after energy companies. The accusations against the industry have been met with skepticism.

However, with the deep pockets of such benefactors, Pawa and his law firm have embarked on an ambitious quest to sue energy producers and manufacturers across the country under trumped up legal theories.

Strikingly, in March 2016, Pawa gave a presentation on environmental litigation to a coalition of AGs with Sharon Eubanks. Eubanks led the RICO litigation against other sectors in the 1990s and has been involved with efforts to do the same against the energy industry, including participating in a workshop about environmental litigation and attending a meeting held by the wealthy donors who hired Pawa for the environmental litigation.[7] Pawa found a receptive audience with state attorneys general, including New York’s Eric T. Schneiderman.  However, Schneiderman’s office asked Pawa not to confirm making the presentation, and it came to light only after documents obtained by open records requests became public.

Most recently, Matt Pawa, who sold his firm to Hagens Berman in September,[8] partnered with the cities of Oakland and San Francisco to bring a lawsuit against energy producers to hold them accountable for rising sea levels.

Pawa has had success in litigating against businesses, winning hundreds of millions of dollars for his clients and certainly handsome paychecks for himself. But really, Pawa is just getting started. He has found that taking manufacturers to court is both costly and reputationally damaging for many companies, regardless of the merit of the claims.  This dynamic encourages companies to settle. As a result, he has been given plenty of incentive to continue these lawsuits and to come up with reasons for new ones. But while Pawa lines his pockets with this lucrative litigation, manufacturers and manufacturing workers in America could pay a heavy price.

[1] Pawa Law Group, “Ground-Breaking Products Liability Case In California Superior Court On Behalf Of A Three-Year Old Boy Who Was Badly Burned By A Cupsoup,” March 18, 2013

[2] $3 million has been found according to the reported 990s of foundations

[3] Capital Research Center, “Partisan Donors Hiding Under Charity’s Banner,” October 19, 2015

[4] According to 990s; Capital Research Center, “Partisan Donors Hiding Under Charity’s Banner,” October 19, 2015

[5] New York Review of Books, “The Rockefeller Family Fund vs. Exxon,” by David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman, December 8, 2016

[6] Wall Street Journal, “Exxon Fires Back at Climate Probe,” April 13, 2016

[7] Climate Accountability Institute, “Establishing Accountability for Climate Change Damages: Lessons from Tobacco Control,” June 2012; Wall Street Journal, “Exxon Fires Back at Climate Probe,” April 13, 2016

[8] Hagens Berman, “Hagens Berman Doubles Down on Environmental Law, Adding Three Environmental Law Trailblazers to Firm Roster,” September 5, 2016