A federal judge, who served on the appellate court panel that ruled Exxon Mobil's penalty for the Valdez oil spill should be reduced, had taken trips with an organization that is sponsored in part by the oil company.
Watchdog groups are calling for Judge Andrew Kleinfeld to cut his ties with the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University, a non-profit group that gets funding from Exxon Mobil and other large corporations and has hosted the judge on trips for conferences in Washington, Connecticut and California. The LEC paid for travel, lodging, meals and drinks.
Exxon Mobil has donated $215,000 to the LEC since 1998, according to Exxon Mobil annual reports.
Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, a judicial watchdog group, calls for Kleinfeld to resign from the LEC.
"The people, the fishermen, who lost their livelihood from the Exxon Valdez spill -- it just looks awful to them that one of the judges who's on their case is affiliated with an organization that gets money from Exxon," said Kendall.
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Kleinfeld was one of three appeals court judges who voted to reduce Exxon Mobil's punitive damages from $4.5 billion to $2.5 billion last December.
The judge declined to comment on the ongoing Exxon Mobil appellate case.
Kendall says no matter the legal justification for the court's ruling, the appearance of a conflict of interest by the judge undercuts the integrity of the courts.
Dan Polsby, Dean of George Mason Law School, says the LEC is in compliance with all of the rules of legal ethics.
Exxon Mobil says it gives funds to a variety of judicial educational institutions.
The company released a statement saying it deeply regrets the Valdez oil spill and has already paid $3.5 billion in compensation for it. A spokesperson said the company believes the Valdez case does not warrant any punitive damages be paid.