PPT Exposes Possibly “Most Egregious” Ethics Violation at Haaland’s Interior Department

PPT Exposes Possibly “Most Egregious” Ethics Violation at Haaland’s Interior Department

  • January 30, 2023
Top BLM official held prohibited financial investment in owner of energy project she elevated while taking actions detrimental to competitors

Today, government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced an ethics complaint against the second-ranked official at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at the Department of the Interior (DOI). Records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and whistleblowers indicate that Nada Culver, whom the DOI Inspector General determined violated ethics restrictions in a report issued last year, likely committed several ethics violations regarding prohibited investments and a high-profile oil and gas project in Alaska.

The documents suggest Ms. Culver owned investments in ConocoPhillips, a company on the Department’s List of Prohibited Financial Interests, well after the mandatory period for divesting them had passed. She also failed to disclose to Congress such interests while testifying, and personally worked on matters involving ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project, an oil and gas development in Alaska, even as she participated in Department actions detrimental to competing Alaska oil and gas projects.

Ms. Culver’s ultimate divestiture of her prohibited ConocoPhillips holdings came long after: 1) she was first advised by the Department Ethics Office (DEO), weeks before President Biden was inaugurated, of her obligations to divest prohibited financial interests prior to joining Interior; 2) her ethics training on March 1, 2022; 3) her Interim Ethics Guidance from the DEO on March 11, 2021, and; 4) the urgent admonition of the DEO that she divest all oil and gas interests immediately and her unequivocal agreement to do so. Although federal regulations provide the divestiture must take place within 90 days in most circumstances, Ms. Culver only sold her interests in ConocoPhillips 224 days after the first of these events and more than 110 after the Department ethics officials took emergency action to admonish her to divest of all oil and gas interests immediately. These facts lend considerable support to concerns that Ms. Culver violated her ethics obligations by continuing to hold prohibited financial interests for months.

During these months, she does not appear to have removed herself from situations involving ConocoPhillips. Rather, Ms. Culver testified before Congress and even answered questions on the Willow Project without disclosing her prohibited financial interests in the company. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, and the rest of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, would likely be quite interested in understanding the basis for Ms. Culver’s decision to withhold this pertinent information.

Subsequently, on June 1, 2021, Interior suspended operations on multiple leases in Alaska’s Coastal Plain Program and Ms. Culver was named as the point of contact for the affected leaseholders regarding the suspensions. Notably, however, none of these actions directed at halting development of BLM’s oil and gas leasing in Alaska affected the Willow Project, and ConocoPhillips only stood to benefit from the suspensions of competing Alaskan producers. The very next day Culver requested contact information for ConocoPhillips from a DOI colleague to directly reach out to the company.

Her interests in ConocoPhillips were not the only ethics entanglements for Ms. Culver. All told, as late as July 27, 2021, nearly four months after joining Interior, she held 40 prohibited financial interests that required her to have an ethics waiver or recuse herself in certain circumstances at the risk of violating federal criminal law.

The latest complaint against Ms. Culver adds to the ethical cloud hanging over Secretary Haaland’s Department of the Interior. From the time she first joined BLM until the confirmation of controversial BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning, Ms. Culver was delegated the authority of the BLM director. Also, in addition to the earlier complaint and IG determination that Nada Culver violated ethics rules, PPT has an outstanding complaint against Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Laura Daniel-Davis for matters she was involved in regarding the Coastal Plain and PPT and other organizations continue to harbor unanswered ethics questions regarding newly appointed Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Elizabeth Klein.

“This may be the most egregious example yet of the considerable disregard for ethics compliance at the Department of the Interior under Secretary Haaland,” said Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “While Ms. Culver has already been investigated based on a previous complaint filed by PPT and found to have violated her ethics obligations, this new set of facts we have discovered reveals a potentially much more significant violation of the public’s trust. We imagine stakeholders in the Coastal Plain Program that Ms. Culver was charged with dismantling and Senators to whom Ms. Culver failed to disclose her financial conflict of interest will be very interested in a full investigation. In fact, the public’s trust depends upon it.”