UPDATE: U.Va. asked to produce faculty record policy 

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s investigation of former University of Virginia climatologist Michael Mann under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act for his role in Climategate has sent more than 800 academics across the nation into a royal tizzy.

At the same time they’re accusing Cuccinelli of a “McCathyite inquisition” (nice two-fer, that), they’re insisting that his inquiry is nothing but a  “cheap publicity stunt” that is part of the “right-wing political war on climate science.” U.Va.’s Faculty Senate Executive Council accused the AG of “sending a chilling message to scientists engaged in basic research involving Earth’s climate.”

Actually, the chilling message is really meant for unethical scientists who manipulate data in an attempt to defraud taxpayers. Nonetheless, the “witch-hunt’ hysteria is running rampant:

“This effort to grab and publicize the e-mail communications between Mann and 39 other named scientists seems a terrible precedent if it is allowed to stand. The crime of the ‘climategate’ theft of e-mails from the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit would be enshrined as a matter of formal government practice,” whines Rick Piltz on ClimateScienceWatch.

This is an obvious red herring. Cuccinelli has never condoned computer hacking, which is a crime. Accepting public funds under false pretenses is a different crime. The attorney general’s subpoena merely attempts to establish whether this second crime may have occurred.

If it did – and if Cuccinelli is able to establish legal precedents regarding the use of, and accountability for, the billions of dollars in state and federal grants that go to academic researchers every year- I’m told that similar actions could then be brought under the federal “qui tam” anti-fraud statute around the nation.

Under the federal Civil False Claims Act, a private citizen can file a “qui tam” lawsuit on behalf of the U.S. government for any fraudulent activity involving the use of government funds, and is entitled to a share of any money recovered. The law essentially deputizes individuals as private attorneys general and offers them a monetary incentive to report fraud. Legions of untenured professors, overworked graduate students, and marginalized academics would suddenly have a very strong motive to blow the whistle.

“The academy understands this, and realizes a lot is at stake,” one lawyer told me.

Cuccinelli already has U.Va. officials in a rather tight and increasingly uncomfortable corner. If they release the Mann emails, they will have to admit they lied to Delegate Bob Marshall, a member of the state legislature, when they told him they had deleted them all.

If they ignore a subpoena for materials regarding a fraud investigation, they are obstructing justice.

If they keep insisting that they deleted Mann’s emails when there is evidence proving that they didn’t delete the emails of former U.Va. climatologist Patrick Michaels as well, they merely confirm that they are hypocrites who employ a double standard when it comes to their vaunted notions of “academic freedom.”

Frankly, I don’t see how The University gets out of this mess with its reputation intact – and that’s before anybody even steps foot in a courtroom.

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