New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman caused a stir on Monday when he wrote to a judge saying that Exxon Mobil Corporation had not told his office that Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon and current US secretary of State, used an email alias to discuss a number of subjects, including climate change. Mr. Schneiderman is currently investigating Exxon to determine whether the corporation misled the public and its shareholders about the role of the oil industry in human-caused climate change.
At Exxon, Mr. Tillerson used the email address Rex.W.Tillerson@ExxonMobil.com for most communications, receiving thousands of emails every day, including many from environmental activists. But from at least 2008 through 2015, he also used a second email address, Wayne.Tracker@ExxonMobil.com – Wayne is Tillerson's middle name – and the disclosure of this alias makes him the latest official whose email has come under scrutiny.
It is not unheard of for CEOs and other VIPs in large corporations to use email aliases to separate important company communications from a flood of lower-priority comments. But Schneiderman claims that Exxon never informed his office that the emails came from Tillerson. Exxon, meanwhile, has denied the claim, saying that there had been no attempt to hide the emails or the true identity of their sender.
If Schneiderman's claim proves true, "the significance is not in the existence of a separate/second email account, but in the company's failure to produce these emails in response to the court order," Brian Brox, a professor of American politics at Tulane University, tells The Christian Science Monitor via email.
Exxon says that it has turned over more than 2.5 million pages of documents, including 64 emails from the Wayne Tracker account that had to do with climate change over the course of Schneiderman's investigation, which began before Tillerson stepped down in order to join President Trump's cabinet.
"This was not an alias used to discuss only climate change," Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said on Tuesday. "It was an account used for everyday business by senior executives who needed to reach [Tillerson]." The company also asserted that the identity of "Wayne Tracker" was never hidden.
But the New York attorney general's office claimed that "Wayne Tracker" was not clearly identified.
"Despite the company's incidental production of approximately 60 documents bearing the 'Wayne Tracker' email address, neither Exxon nor its counsel have ever disclosed that this separate email account was a vehicle for Mr. Tillerson's relevant communications at Exxon, and no documents appear to have been collected from this email account," Schneiderman's office wrote in a letter to a New York state judge, according to CNN.
That could be a problem. The current investigation into Exxon is set to determine what the corporation knew about climate change and when they knew it, and whether they hid any relevant information from investors and the general public. Tillerson and Exxon have both acknowledged the existence of human-caused climate change, but the prospect of any cover-up has concerned many environmentalists, among others.
"If I'm Eric Schneiderman and I know Tillerson failed to disclose the existence of the second email account, I'd want to know what else he failed to disclose," Jon Barooshian, a former assistant district attorney in Massachusetts, told Bloomberg. "He'll want to get him in front of a court reporter under oath."
If that happens, it wouldn't be the first time a politician has come under scrutiny for email problems. But Dr. Brox doubts that the political consequences for Tillerson will be dire.
"Unless he gets indicted, I don't think this will greatly alter his future in politics," Brox says. "He seems to have President Trump's confidence and unless it is determined that he personally directed the company to omit these emails when they turned documents over to the NY Attorney General, I think he will escape legal trouble."
Regardless, Tillerson will join the list of political VIPs whose email communication has come under a microscope since the start of the 2016 presidential election. Why does email ensnare so many figures, from Hillary Clinton to Mike Pence?
"The problem with email stems from the fact that the communications of public officials are (largely) public records," says Brox. "Public officials are obliged to archive these communications. This is relatively easy if we're talking about hard copy postal mail, but it becomes murkier when we're talking about electronic communications."
Email sent or received by a public official should be preserved, he adds, even if it is on a private server. But CEOs do not face the same sort of scrutiny as politicians, which means a rough transition for Tillerson, even if there is nothing to hide in his communications. And Christian Emden, the director of Rice University's Politics, Law, and Social Thought program, tells the Monitor that the current political climate can make even the most modest revelations a topic of political debate during a case like this.
"[Attorney generals are] cognizant of the fact that any information released to the public is automatically interpreted along political lines," Dr. Emden says in an email. And climate change is so politicized and such a matter of public interest that "the AG's investigation cannot sidestep the political arena," he says.
"Any corporation of the size of ExxonMobil – with revenues and assets larger than the GDP of many countries – is also a political actor," he adds.
This article contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.