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Michael Hiltzik: Oil industry subpoenas aim to harass and intimidate, consumer group says

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Litigation is nobody's idea of fun (except, perhaps, lawyers), and that's certainly true for anyone dragged into a lawsuit without being either a plaintiff or defendant.

That's the situation facing Consumer Watchdog, the Santa Monica-based consumer group, which has spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of billable hours fending off a shower of subpoenas issued by big oil companies in connection with lawsuits to which the group isn't a party.

Chevron and Exxon have served seven nonparty subpoenas on Consumer Watchdog since 2009, the group says. Over the last year or two, those companies and others in the oil industry have gotten "more and more aggressive," says Jerry Flanagan, Consumer Watchdog's chief counsel.

In July, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Phillips 66 demanded the materials and names of sources the group used to produce a series of critical reports about the industry published on its website or presented to state agencies. The material included "all COMMUNICATIONS with ANY governmental agency," including the state energy commission and attorney general's office, related to the industry. (Emphasis in the original.)

The subpoenas are connected to a lawsuit brought by consumers and a gas station owner asserting that Chevron, Exxon Mobil and six other companies conspired to manipulate gas prices higher, an allegation made by numerous Consumer Watchdog articles.

Most recently, the oil companies filed a subpoena on Jan. 8 seeking a deposition from the group's president, Jamie Court, on Jan. 28, without specifying what they want to ask him or why his personal appearance is so crucial.

 

Consumer Watchdog has told lawyers for Chevron and Exxon Mobil that Court won't be available on that date; the companies say they'll be flexible on scheduling but still want Court to appear.

Flanagan estimates that he and his legal staff have spent some 500 hours responding to oil company subpoenas since 2018, at an estimated cost of $150,000, or fully 10% of the consumer group's legal budget. "This is clearly designed to cripple us," he says.

The oil companies say it's nothing of the kind.

Exxon Mobil told me by email, "We reject any allegation that the subpoena process has been improperly used in this or any litigation." Chevron's lawyer, Steven E. Sletten, told me by email that the companies are seeking Court's testimony "in the same way they would seek testimony from any witness identified as having factual knowledge" of the plaintiffs' claims.

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