Exxon taps high-profile lawyer to fight N.Y. climate change probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp XOM.N has hired a star attorney in an aggressive response to mounting scrutiny over the company's climate change disclosures, according to people familiar with the matter.

A sign is seen at the entrance of the Exxonmobil Port Allen Lubricants Plant in Port Allen, Louisiana, November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Lee Celano

They identified the attorney as Theodore V. Wells, Jr., co-chair of the litigation department at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rikfind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began an investigation about a year ago into whether Exxon lied to investors about how climate change risks could hurt its bottom line.

Schneiderman’s office hit Exxon with subpoenas last month demanding a trove of financial records, emails and other documentation. The company is tentatively due to respond to the requests by mid-December, the sources said.

The company has not been charged in the matter and it is unclear where the probe will lead. But Exxon’s decision to hire such a heavy hitter signals it views the matter seriously.

Wells this year investigated the New England Patriots in the “Deflategate” ball-tampering scandal for the National Football League. He also previously represented former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer and Scooter Libby, a former official in the administration of President George W. Bush.

Exxon has also retained Paul Weiss partner Michele Hirshman, a former deputy New York attorney general and federal prosecutor, to help with its defense, the people said.

Environmental groups have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the company after several news outlets reported earlier this year that Exxon executives had downplayed warnings on global warming by the company’s own scientists.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and several members of Congress have said they would welcome a federal probe.

The Justice Department has declined to comment on the issue.

Exxon has said it has worked transparently for years on climate science and has properly disclosed business risks.

Wells and Hirshman did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the law firm did not respond to requests for comment.

Wells previously represented Exxon in environmental defense matters including a recent $225 million settlement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The calls for a federal investigation come as countries around the world are more broadly debating what steps they can take to reduce carbon emissions.

This week marked the start of a two-week summit in Paris where world leaders are trying to iron out a global agreement to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The New York investigation is being conducted by the attorney general’s office under the Martin Act, a broad-ranging state law that covers both criminal and civil charges.

The law lets the state bring a claim against a company for misrepresenting or omitting material facts about securities offerings without the state needing to prove that the company intentionally deceived investors.

That standard makes it easier to bring a case than if it had to prove intent.

The state’s consumer fraud laws, which could also be potentially invoked in the matter, additionally do not require prosecutors to prove consumers were harmed.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Soyoung Kim and Cynthia Osterman