The power and voice of a State ought not be for sale—but billionaire Michael Bloomberg in 2017 started a grant program to try to at least rent it through the states' attorneys general. As Ohio prepares for its primary election March 17, Mr. Bloomberg's ethically cloudy initiative ought to raise some questions about how deeply—and whether—he considers ethical questions regarding the use of public power.
The program hires two-year legal fellows through New York University School of Law to litigate for Mr. Bloomberg's favored environmental policies. The next step is where the problem comes in: These lawyers then work in the offices of state attorneys general working on those cases. Public reports indicate there are at least 14 of these fellows, working in nine states and the District of Columbia, funded by a $6 million grant from the former New York City mayor.
It's not the subject matter of the litigation that is the problem, it is the private financing of the exercise of government power.
To take it out of the context of our current jungle politics, imagine if the Koch Brothers paid for lawyers in the office of a Republican Attorney General, with the goal of litigating regulation or market policy. I'd be bothered by that, too. Or pick a billionaire and a public policy you hate—it's not the policy or the person, it's the checkbook justice.
Billionaires already have the resources to litigate, and to contribute as well to private organizations who can—giving them a far outsized voice in court. Mr. Bloomberg wants to leverage the public, taxpayer funded office that's supposed to be representing us, the people.
This arrangement would be prohibited under Ohio law, which says that no one may give compensation to a "public servant" for performing public duties. (For the armchair lawyers out there, a "public servant" is more than a public official—it is defined in Ohio law to include jurors, consultants and candidates among others.)
Ohio's law recognizes that public power cannot and should not be funded by private wealth. No one can serve two masters—and the master with the money is the one who usually wins.
The Bloomberg arrangement also allows the hyper-rich to skew public policy. Every attorney general must decide what is important enough to use the limited resources of the office. When a billionaire can simply fund some lawyers to file lawsuits in the State's name, the prioritization of competing needs flies out the window.
Laws vary from state to state, and no doubt this practice is legal in the states using it. But just because a thing may be legal in a particular time or place does not mean it is proper or ethical. The power of his gold should not let Mr. Bloomberg hijack a public office—regardless of how good the cause may be that he wishes to fund.
It is certainly worth noting that Mr. Bloomberg is an extraordinarily generous man who has done public good with his wealth. In this political era every factoid, every isolated act or word is deemed dispositive of a person's morals and worth—and it ought not to be so, and I do not suggest that he should be judged by one issue. But this ill-considered program is one piece of his record, and ought to be part of Ohio's considerations at the polls.
Dave Yost is Ohio's Attorney General. He is a Republican.