FERC’s Web of Conflicts Exposed

FERC’s Web of Conflicts Exposed

  • July 27, 2022

Transparency lawsuit reveals several potential conflicts and ethical entanglements

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust revealed the dances ethics officials at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had to perform to manage the conflicts of some members.

PPT obtained the documents after filing a lawsuit against FERC. The agency had ignored a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for nearly a year, including not even acknowledging receipt nor responding to several attempts at outreach by PPT, before “processing [PPT’s] request expeditiously” upon the lawsuit being filed. FERC has been subject to bipartisan criticism during the Biden Administration for appearing to allow political agendas, which some have called “radical,” to drive its decisions and pursuing climate programs rather than its core mission of ensuring affordable, reliable energy is available for consumers.

Commissioner Willie L. Phillips, whose confirmation in November gave Democrats a 3-2 majority at the agency, received an after-the-fact authorization to participate in a docket item that involved the Organization of PJM States, Inc. (OPSI). Phillips served on the board of OPSI prior to his confirmation and was recused for one year from “knowingly participating personally and substantially in any particular matter involving OPSI” without prior authorization. The transition from interim to permanent staff for Commissioner Phillips was blamed for his “inadvertently” voting on the item.

Prior to Commissioner Phillips’s participation in the matter mentioned above, he had sought and was granted permission to participate in a matter related to a docket proceeding in which the DC Public Service Commission (DC PSC) participated while he served as DC PSC chairman. Ethics officials determined, in that case, that the matters were separate and DC PSC’s involvement in one should not affect Commissioner Phillips’ participation in the other. Commissioner Phillips was also forced to seek an authorization to participate in a third matter because of his connection to OPSI as well as one with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

In April, FERC’s Director of External Affairs, Sarah Venuto, was granted an authorization to participate in a matter involving a prospective employer. Office of Government Ethics regulations require Federal employees are prohibited from participating in certain matters affecting the financial interests of a prospective employer without a prior authorization from ethics officials.

“Protect the Public’s Trust’s transparency lawsuit exposed a number of potential conflicts and ethical entanglements at FERC that the American public would not know about had we not filed this lawsuit,” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, said. “With so much riding on FERC’s decisions, the agency cannot allow conflicts and politicization to interfere. This episode represents yet another example of an agency hiding the waivers it has issued until forced to reveal them via lawsuit. FERC must be more transparent and ensure the American public that political agendas are not driving its decisions.”