On Thursday, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration announced it was settling New Jersey’s $8.9 billion lawsuit against ExxonMobil for just $225 million. Just hours later, amid outraged calls for a federal probe of the deal as far too lenient, Christie attended a secretive conference in Georgia organized by an think tank that has been funded by ExxonMobil.
Christie was scheduled to give the opening speech at the American Enterprise Institute’s World Forum at a luxury resort on Sea Island, according to Bloomberg News. Corporate documents show that ExxonMobil has been a major benefactor of AEI, a conservative think tank in Washington whose scholars have disputed the scientific consensus on climate change and touted ExxonMobil as a “taxation hero.”
In 2012 and 2013, Exxon disclosed giving AEI a total of almost $600,000. The Union of Concerned Scientists has previously reported that AEI received $3 million from ExxonMobil between 2001 and 2011. In its past “corporate citizenship” reports, Exxon has touted its support of the group. A former CEO, Lee Raymond, served as the vice chairman of AEI’s board of trustees.
A Christie spokesman, Kevin Roberts, confirmed that the governor attended the AEI event, but he did not respond to IBTimes' separate request for comment on whether Christie discussed the Exxon settlement there. Exxon declined IBTimes' request for comment.
Bloomberg reported that an AEI World Forum agenda showed that Christie is attending the event along with other prospective Republican presidential candidates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. In response to IBTimes’ inquiry about the nature of the event, AEI spokeswoman Judy Mayka Stecker said: “The AEI World Forum is an informal gathering of leading thinkers from all ideological backgrounds to discuss challenges that the United States and the free world face in economics, security and social welfare.”
Asked if Christie discussed New Jersey’s Exxon settlement over pollution at the company’s refining facilities -- cemented mere hours before the World Forum commenced -- Stecker said that in order to “maintain intellectual freedom and free discourse, the event is private and off the record, therefore we do not comment further on the content or attendees.”
While receiving ExxonMobil cash, AEI has often publicly defended the company. Its reports have, for instance, touted the company for paying taxes, have argued that the punishment assessed to the company over the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska was “oversized” and have asserted that proposals to reduce taxpayer subsidies for major oil companies are “abusive.”
In the past, AEI has disputed that it relies heavily on ExxonMobil funding. Following a 2007 report in the Guardian calling the group “an ExxonMobil-funded think tank with close links to the Bush administration,” an AEI official asserted that “ExxonMobil’s donations to AEI are either bulked up by adding donations over many years, or simply made up.” The executive said ExxonMobil’s “annual AEI support is generous and valued, but is a fraction of the amount reported -- no corporation accounts for more than 1 percent of our annual budget.”
Last week, a New York Times report on New Jersey's pending settlement with ExxonMobil set off a firestorm, as the public learned that the Christie administration was ready to end a decade of litigation against Exxon for a small fraction of what the state was seeking.
Further, critics worried that Christie, empowered by language in last year’s state budget, would use the bulk of the money from any settlement to shore up the general fund rather than to support restoration efforts. IBTimes reported on Thursday that state documents show the Christie administration is already moving to shift environmental settlement money out of cleanups and into a Christie budget that reduces funding for environmental protection.
Hours before Christie left New Jersey to attend the AEI event, his appointed state attorney general, John Hoffman, formally announced Thursday that New Jersey would settle for $225 million, after the state had been seeking $8.9 billion in damages.
“This important settlement, which came about because this administration aggressively pushed the case to trial, is the result of long-fought settlement negotiations that predated and postdated the trial,” Hoffman said in a statement.
IBTimes previously reported that ExxonMobil has been a major donor to the Republican Governors Association, contributing $1.9 million to the organization since Christie ran for governor. Christie served as the group’s chairman last year, earning political debts from GOP leaders around the country that would be immensely valuable in a presidential run, and the RGA backed both of his runs for governor.
On Thursday, Democrat Steve Sweeney, the president of the New Jersey Senate, called on the U.S. attorney in Newark to consider launching a federal investigation of the settlement. Other legislators say they plan to try to block the settlement, which still must be approved by a judge.
Story updated at 4:05pm ET.