The Martin Act, passed in New York in 1921, is a state-wide law and perhaps the most broad anti-fraud law in democratic society. And now, it is being wielded by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman against oil giant Exxon-Mobil, the largest publicly-traded oil company in the world. Reuters reports that charges allege that the company has deceived shareholders as to the dangers of climate change.
The Martin Act is a potent weapon in this case. It is unique in that it requires no evidence that there was an attempt (or even intent) to deceive. It simply looks at misinformation disseminated.
The act is unique in that no proof of intent to deceive is required to bring a claim, and prosecutors do not even need to show that anyone was in fact defrauded. The act allows for criminal as well as civil charges.
The investigation was first prompted by a series of articles in the publication Climate News, which reported that Exxon-Mobil has misled Americans and tried to obscure the link between fossil fuels and climate change. Discovery News reports that one of these articles, published on September 16th, claimed that Exxon knew about the problem since 1977, when one of their senior scientists, James F. Black, reported an overabundance of fossil fuels could cause climate change. According to the article, James gave another warning, stating that humanity had only from 5 to 10 years to act on this information. Current Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said “The charges are pretty unfounded, without any substance at all, and dealing with a period of time that happened decades ago. We were very open during that period of time with all the research we were doing”.
Federal officials have begun to push for similar measures on a national level. After all, besides its more wide-ranging consequences, climate change may hit all Americans closer to home. But the federal movement faces more difficulty. In New York, the Martin Act includes both civil and criminal charges, so those found guilty could face jail time. However, large fines seem more likely.