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Buying influence? Corporations, conservative nonprofits sponsor seminars for judges
Investigation » Funding raises questions about educational trips and conflicts of interest.

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Wolle, Real and O’Scannlain are all listed as seminar sponsors, though records do not indicate how much they contributed.

The Center identified instances where judges who attended seminars underwritten by certain firms and trade groups later issued rulings in the funders’ favor.

At a glance

Utah’s Federal Judges took few trips

In the U.S. District for Utah, just four of 19 judges took trips during the 4 1/2 year period covered by the analysis.

William T. Thurman, chief judge of the state’s bankruptcy court, took three trips between 2009 and 2012. He attended the Economics Institute for Judges program at Northwestern in 2009 and 2012, and the Sir Richard May Seminar on International Law and International Courts organized by the International Judicial Academy at The Hague in the Netherlands in 2010.

Judge Kimball R. Mosier, who also is a bankruptcy judge, attended George Mason University’s Economics Institute for Judges in 2011.

Judge David Nuffer, who was officially elevated to the District Court in May, went to a seminar on “The Rule of Law” in 2010 while he was the chief magistrate judge for the district. It was sponsored by George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center.

Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner attended a seminar titled “Mill on Liberty” in 2009 hosted by George Mason University in San Diego, Calif.

Appellate Judge Michael R. Murphy, one of two Utahns on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, attended a 2010 seminar on human rights in New York organized by The Aspen Institute. He apparently paid his own way, showing up as a funder for the seminar.

­— Brooke Adams

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EPA loses case » In April 2009, for example, Jolly traveled to Northwestern University to attend the "Criminalization of Corporate Conduct" seminar sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 13 other funders.

Last August, Jolly wrote the majority 2-1 opinion declaring that the Environmental Protection Agency broke the law when it rejected a Texas emissions cap generally supported by the fossil fuels industry.

Jolly, who did not respond to requests for comment, sided with two of the petitioners in the suit — the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber.

Charles Geyh, an Indiana University law professor who specializes in judicial ethics, is skeptical that rulings are directly influenced by corporate sponsor of seminars, but noted, "in a cynic’s view that would smack of corruption."

"Even if it has no effect in terms of the decisions judges make, the perception of influence matters a great deal," he says. "It looks as if [corporations] are buying influence, even if it’s not true."

Another attendee of the 2009 "Criminalization of Corporate Conduct" seminar was U.S. District Judge Carl J. Barbier, the Eastern District of Louisiana jurist presiding over a high-profile BP civil trial, which is being held without a jury in New Orleans.

Barbier is in charge of considering whether BP owes billions of dollars in fines for gross negligence leading to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and spill. The disaster killed 11 people and contaminated a large swath of the Gulf Coast.

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In 2011, Barbier dismissed a wrongful-death claim in a suit brought against ExxonMobil and Chevron USA by the widow of a worker who was exposed to radioactive materials found on the companies’ equipment.

Barbier’s ruling in favor of the oil companies came two years after he attended the corporate conduct seminar, funded in part by ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute, according to documents. The judge did not respond to requests for comment.

Corporate U? » George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center hosted 45 seminars while Northwestern University’s Judicial Education Program hosted 29. A total of 136 federal judges reported attending conferences conducted by the schools during the 4 1/2-year period analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.

The remaining top five conference hosts, including The Sedona Conference and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), collectively organized 28 conferences.

The Koch Foundation and The Searle Freedom Trust supported among the supporters of most of the conferences organized by George Mason and Northwestern. The energy industry was a sponsor in roughly three-fourths of the conferences hosted by Northwestern.

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, major supporters of conservative causes, and their foundations have given millions to George Mason University. As the Center recently reported, the George Mason University Foundation received $4.4 million in 2011 from the Charles Koch Foundation, making up 15 percent of its revenue that year.

The school is the top recipient of Koch foundation money since 1985. George Mason also houses several free market and libertarian research centers, including the Institute for Humane Studies, which received $3.7 million from the Koch foundations, and the Mercatus Center, whose board of directors includes Charles Koch.

Officials from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation did not return phone calls seeking comment for this report.

The Judicial Conference disclosure policy doesn’t require seminar hosts to reveal how much donors contribute to conferences. But corporate-giving reports and nonprofit tax records shed some light on the costs.

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