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Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pigeon has helped two natural gas companies defend themselves.
Friday, June 7, 2013
RICHMOND — A federal judge said she is shocked that an assistant Virginia attorney general has been helping two natural gas companies, one a major donor to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial campaign, defend themselves against charges they bilked landowners out of royalties.
In an opinion issued Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Pamela Meade Sargent said Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pigeon’s role was revealed in emails provided to the court by the plaintiffs in the case against EQT Production Co. and CNX Gas Co., two Pittsburgh-area energy companies. CNX is owned by Consol Energy, which gave the Cuccinelli campaign $111,044.
“Shockingly, these emails show that the [oil and gas] board, or at least Pigeon, has been actively involved in assisting EQT and CNX with the defense of these cases, including offering advice on and providing information for use on the motions before the court.”
Sargent did not release the emails.
But copies on file at the U.S. District Court in Abingdon include an August 2012 email from Pigeon to Consol 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 firms, 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.
The state was not a party to the lawsuit.
“Our office’s role is not to provide advice to any private party in this case. Our office intervened in the case for the limited purpose of defending the constitutionality of the Virginia Gas and Oil Act. Other issues in the case are matters between the plaintiffs and defendant gas operators,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
The lead attorney for the landowners has been critical of the state Gas and Oil Board for its oversight of the royalties paid by the two companies, and he seized on Sargent’s written comments about Pigeon.
“The state of Virginia is supposed to be watching this,” said Don Barrett, a Lexington, Miss., attorney. “They are stooges for CNX and EQT.”
The complicated dispute dating more than a decade involves thousands of wells the companies drilled in far Southwest Virginia to remove methane gas from coal seams. The landowners represented by Barrett and a team of lawyers in Abingdon argue they were cheated out of nearly $30 million or more of royalties by EQT and CNX.
Sargent’s opinion Wednesday involved a recommendation to a federal judge in Abingdon that the case be certified as a class action representing the interests of thousands of landowners.
“We have reviewed the magistrate’s recommendation and while we are pleased with some parts of the recommendation, others we disagree with and plan to ask the judge to reject those parts of the recommendation,” EQT said.
CNX did not respond to telephone messages.
Staff writer David Ress contributed to this report.
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