By Ernest Scheyder
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked a state judge on Monday to block U.S. Virgin Islands officials from subpoenaing 40 years of internal climate change documents from Exxon Mobil Corp, saying the probe is "a fishing expedition of the worst kind."
The motion is the latest salvo in an ongoing disclosure fight that has engulfed Exxon in recent months, with critics charging the company misled investors and the public about the risks of climate change for years. Exxon has denied the allegations.
Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Earl Walker launched an investigation two months ago, seeking to build a case against Exxon. The probe is similar to ones launched by attorneys general in New York, Massachusetts and California.
Paxton, in a Monday filing with a judge in Tarrant County, Texas, blasted the investigation as a violation of Exxon's First Amendment rights. Exxon, the world's largest publicly-traded oil company, is headquartered in Texas, where it employs thousands of people.
"What is Exxon Mobil's transgression? Holding a view on climate change that the Virgin Islands attorney general disagrees with," Paxton said at a news conference. "This is about the criminalization of speech and the criminalization of thought."
Paxton is effectively asking the court to block Walker's subpoena power. Exxon has no operations in the Virgin Islands and would need the cooperation of Texas officials for the documents it seeks. The case could ultimately move to a higher court.
"This is an instance where an elected official is trying to turn free speech into a crime," Paxton said. "If we let this stand, it's only a matter of time before they come for other companies or individuals who voice opinions with which they disagree."
Exxon said in a statement it appreciated the support from Paxton in its fight against the Virgin Island's subpoena.
It was not immediately clear why Paxton's motion did not include officials from other states probing the company. Requests for comment from Paxton's office were not immediately answered.
Walker's office was not immediately available to comment.
Paxton also criticized Walker's use of the Washington law firm Cohen Milstein to issue the subpoena, claiming it was an "unconstitutional delegation of prosecutorial power."
Cohen Milstein specializes in class action lawsuits. Representatives of the firm were not immediately available to comment.
Exxon shareholders are set to vote next week at the company's annual meeting on several climate change-related resolutions.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Terry Wade and Tom Brown)