2021 in Review: A Year of Ethical Lapses

2021 in Review: A Year of Ethical Lapses

  • December 30, 2021

Protect the Public’s Trust was founded on the belief that public service is a public trust. Unfortunately, the trend line is clear – the American public’s trust in its government is rapidly declining. This is why it’s so vital to keep the light shining on the actions of our public servants to ensure they are held to the highest standards. At a minimum, this means avoiding potential conflicts of interest and questionable conduct that erodes that trust. As we close the book on 2021, here is a recap of the most concerning Executive Branch conduct discovered and exposed by PPT in its founding year.

“The American public has high expectations of its public servants,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “While we have an administration that declares itself the most ethical in history, that message appears not to have filtered down to some of the places and officials where that commitment matters most. The public deserves better and we’re hopeful that, by continuing to shine the spotlight, PPT will help usher in the transparency and integrity in government that Americans deserve.”

BLM’s #2 Under Investigation
In response to a complaint from federal ethics watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust, an investigation was opened by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of the Interior into Nada Culver, Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director of Policy and Programs. The investigation is exploring whether Ms. Culver violated her ethics agreement by participating in matters involving Public Land Orders that were strongly opposed by her former employer prior to Culver joining the Department.

BLM’s #1 Also Potentially Under Investigation
PPT alerted both the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and Department of the Interior Inspector General to potential false statements made by Tracy Stone-Manning during her confirmation as BLM director. Ms. Stone-Manning’s written testimony provided to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee have been directly contradicted by one of Ms. Stone-Manning’s former co-conspirators in the tree spiking incident that sent multiple individuals to prison, the Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case, and the lead federal investigator in the case. Indeed, even contemporaneous media interviews by Ms. Stone-Manning at the time of the criminal trial indicate she may have been untruthful in her testimony.

Top EPA Science Official’s Ongoing Ties to China
Through documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, PPT discovered and revealed that senior EPA leaders had signed off on a high-ranking official’s continued employment relationship with an instrumentality of the Chinese government while serving at the agency. The official, Christopher Frey, later pledged to resign from the adjunct professorship that created this relationship if confirmed by the Senate.

Ethics Woes of Energy Head
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm had a rocky first year as she faced substantial criticism over her relationship with electric vehicle component manufacturer Proterra, where she formerly served as a Board member. In May, Granholm netted around $1.6M from her sale of Proterra stock options, after holding them nearly 100 days into her stint as Secretary of Energy. During this time, the Administration and the President specifically boosted the company for promotion, raising concerns among independent ethics experts and media outlets. In November, she again drew attention as she stood in front of Proterra buses at a prominent event where she announced millions of dollars of federal grants to long-standing Proterra business partners. Shortly after, PPT filed a complaint alleging Secretary Granholm committed ethics violations by her participation and implicit endorsement of her former employer.

Granholm is also facing tough questions from members of the United States Senate and multiple complaints to the Office of Special Counsel for violating the Hatch Act based on her actions leading up to Fall elections.

Transparency Challenges over Interior Secretary’s Calendar Records
Calendar records of senior agency leaders have often been important in understanding who is influencing agency decisions and ensuring all ethics and legal responsibilities are being upheld. These records are not always easy to obtain, however. An investigation by PPT revealed that Interior’s Director of Communications may have played a part in withholding these records from the public. In late July, Secretary Haaland’s top spokesperson declared that political appointees on the Department’s communications team took down a version of her calendar for aesthetic reasons.

In September, PPT filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding the Department of the Interior release these records after nearly four months of failing to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request. After the lawsuit was filed, the Department quietly added some of the requested information to its webpage.

COVID Misinformation by Senior Government Officials
Scientific integrity over one of the biggest issues affecting Americans today – COVID-19 – is essential to maintaining the public’s trust in respected institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH). As this trust deteriorates, though, PPT has joined other watchdogs is calling out potential misinformation and violations of important scientific integrity principles. In October, PPT requested the Department of Health and Human Services investigate possible violations of the agency’s scientific integrity principles by senior officials. The federal watchdog alleged that the CDC and NIH on multiple occasions misrepresented the results of a study on the CDC website and in public appearances.

Top Granholm Deputy Caught in Continued Pattern of Endorsement
PPT’s independent research uncovered several instances in which the Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy may have violated her ethics obligations. The watchdog asked, on two separate occasions, for the Department to investigate instances in which Kelly Speakes-Backman appears to have participated in events where she either endorsed her former employer, the Energy Storage Association, or was sponsored by a “Leadership Circle” Member of her former employer while acting in her official DOE capacity. Agency efforts to withhold records critical to this investigation also became the subject of a lawsuit by PPT in the Fall. DOE is now subject to a monthly production schedule to release responsive documents.

Tracking Senior Appointees Who Were Granted Waivers to Ethics Obligations
Restricting high-ranking government officials from working on issues that benefit their previous employers or clients is important to maintaining public trust. When these restrictions are relaxed, the public should be alerted. Protect the Public’s Trust unveiled its Ethics Waiver Tracker in which it compiled publicly available ethics waivers, including limited waivers and impartiality determinations granted by ethics officials to high-level Executive Branch leadership. As PPT tracks these waivers, agencies have been less-than-forthcoming in providing these documents.

Another Interior Official Facing Multiple Potential Investigations
Protect the Public’s Trust filed a complaint with the Department of the Interior asking the Office of the Inspector General to look into whether a high-ranking official may have violated the criminal conflict of interest law that applies to federal officials. Deputy Solicitor Daniel Cordalis appears to have personally rescinded a January 2021 memo issued by career attorneys, an act that could benefit an entity that is both his former employer and his wife’s current employer. Cordalis’s potential investigation could make him the second official within Interior’s Office of the Solicitor who is facing an investigation after Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan called out Cordalis’s colleague, Natalie Landreth, for also participating in issues that might violate her ethics obligations. If these investigations are pursued, it could mean two different offices at Interior have more than one appointee currently under investigation.

Fauci Caught in the Act?
Senior government officials are required to leave their politics at the door. This is even more important for high-ranking officials with influential media profiles whose public endorsements have the potential to impact national elections. This appears to have occurred in the lead up to the 2020 elections by the U.S. government’s highest paid employee and one of the most recognizable voices on television today. In June, PPT urged the Office of Special Counsel to investigate statements by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci that appeared to violate the Hatch Act and secure his influential position as one of the President’s chief COVID advisors.

EPA Web of Conflicts
PPT’s investigation of ethics waivers granted to political appointees revealed an enormous wave of EPA leadership roles being filled by leaders from large, powerful special interest groups. Even as an “overlap of recusals” is forcing the agency’s ethics officials to grant waivers to ethics rules just to allow the agency to properly function, EPA is impeding requests for access to public records regarding high-level officials.

Unringing the Bell at EPA
Documents obtained via FOIA from PPT and other organizations revealed EPA’s Acting Associate Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Joseph Goffman may have improperly exerted his influence to arrange a high-level meeting with Agency personnel on behalf of his former employer. Goffman admitted to taking an action “my recusal bars me from” and was admonished by ethics officials who then had to attempt to “unring the bell.”