New Novick job has political overtones
In past battles, longtime politician and operative Steve Novick has taken on conservative activist Bill Sizemore, then-state lawmaker Jeff Merkley in a U.S. Senate primary, and Chloe Eudaly, who unseated him for the Portland City Council in 2016.
His latest opponent? President Donald Trump.
On Friday, Oregon Attorney Ellen Rosenblum announced that Novick, 55, will work for her as a special assistant attorney general. And while he has experience — decades ago Novick worked for 10 years as a U.S. government litigator— his new job also comes with distinct political overtones: the chance to go up against the White House.
While housed at the state Department of Justice, Novick will be a paid fellow of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, a project launched last year with a $6 million grant from Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman, former New York Mayor and climate change philanthropist.
The unusual arrangement is part of a project to fund assistant attorney general positions in 10 states, "helping state attorneys general fight against regulatory rollbacks and advocate for clean energy, climate change, and environmental values and protections."
While the center calls itself non-partisan, it was clearly set up to counter the many changes by the Trump administration that have benefitted the fossil fuel industry to the dismay of environmentalists. The headline of an article by the journal Inside Philanthropy last year reads, "Bloomberg's Latest Tool in the Trump Fight: Helping States Wage Legal Battles." One conservative online blogger blasted the center as a "nefarious" attempt to put "radical" attorneys into state AG offices.
That line might amuse Portland political insiders. Two years ago, Eudaly portrayed the more moderate Novick as a corporate sell-out during the campaign, among other things citing his criticism of the cost of some cleanup options considered for the Portland Harbor Superfund site.
Before politics, the law
Starting in 1987 Novick spent a decade at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he litigated cases enforcing environmental laws, including the high-profile Love Canal case in which hundreds of New Yorkers were sickened with leukemia and other afflictions due to toxic waste dumping.
In Oregon, between 1997 and 2002, he argued several ballot titles before the Oregon Supreme Court, sometimes against Sizemore, the conservative ballot activist.
Since he lost the council race Novick has kept busy, appearing on a regular debate show on KGW with conservative radio host Lars Larson.
Last year he reactivated his law license with the Oregon State Bar. And early this year Novick explored getting admitted to federal court.
In an e-mail, he said he's also been active in the Portland City Club, volunteered for the council campaign of Andrea Valderrama, and also did tax policy research for an unnamed client.
"I've kept up my advocacy for two issues near to my heart — later high school start times, and fixing the property tax inequities created by Measure 50," he wrote. "I've house-trained a puppy; and I've done a lot of cooking."
Now Novick is in the thick of a larger battle.
More than 100 suits have been filed by states , including Oregon, over recent federal decisions on water and air pollution, energy efficiency, climate and other issues, according to a running tally kept by the NYU center.
Making attorney-general allies is not a new practice. A 2014 New York Times article exposed a well-funded, corporation-backed effort to influence Republican attorneys general and encourage some litigation — often against the Obama administration — while discouraging other suits.
In a press release announcing the appointment, Rosenblum was quoted saying: "The progress Oregon has made over the last several decades to protect and preserve our environment seems to be under attack every day. By adding one additional attorney to our team we are able to grow our environmental work, and focus more on many of the environmental issues that are so important to Oregonians."
Novick will be paid a $146,196 annual salary as an NYU employee, according to the June 8 job offer he received from the center director, David Hayes.
"You will be under the direction and control of, and owe a duty of loyalty to, the DOJ, and will be subject to DOJ's policies regarding employee conduct," according to the letter, which was released by Oregon DOJ.
The center's website says the fellows will be asked to "coordinate with the State Impact Center and interested allies on legal, regulatory and communications efforts regarding clean energy, climate change and environmental issues."
The agreement does not say who those allies are. But the broader issue of non-governmental funding and entanglements for prosecutors and assistant attorneys general has raised questions for some observers in the past. Citing the example of corporate-paid salaries, a 2017 Boston College Law Review article opined that it "may inappropriately influence those individual prosecutors."
The ODOJ agreement with the center goes out of its way to say the state has the legal authority to accept outside funding for this purpose and that the arrangement is not intended to induce the state to take any particular action. The center is not allowed to access Novick's confidential work product.
Ready to go
Novick, in emailed responses to Tribune questions, said he had read of the Bloomberg connection to the center, but knew nothing of it outside of that.
The center's June 7 agreement with the state agency requires that Novick be assigned substantive work. on environmental matters.
And Novick is clearly looking forward it, though he declined to discuss details and plans for the position.
"Since I'm not a DOJ spokesperson, I'm not going to say much other than 'I'm just happy to be here and hope I can help the ballclub," he said.