Ken Cuccinelli’s Conflict of Interest Problem: The CONSOL Energy Campaign Contributions Timeline

The unfolding controversy around Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s involvement with CONSOL Energy Inc., a Pittsburgh-based fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) company, has focused on the widely criticized assistance his office provided the company. It also has focused on the total amount of money Cuccinelli has received from CONSOL.

When forced to respond to C&BP recently, Cuccinelli has asserted the company “gave me $100,000 after I opposed them.” A comparison of the timing of contributions and actions that favored CONSOL paint a very different picture.

Ken Cuccinelli and Consol Energy Campaign Contributions

In the first eight years of Mr. Cuccinelli’s political career (state senate), his campaigns received a total of $3,500 from CONSOL. However, once elected to Attorney General, his office began taking actions that favored CONSOL and disadvantaged southwestern Virginia landowners who hadn’t been paid by CONSOL. A comparison of the timelines of actions and money show a pattern of accelerating support as favorable actions increased, bringing a total of $140,000 to Cuccinelli after the actions favorable to CONSOL began.

In June 2010, Mr. Cuccinelli issued an advisory opinion that limited the jurisdiction of the Virginia Gas and Oil Board that forced Virginia landowners to go to court over royalty payments, a move clearly in CONSOL Energy’s favor.

Two months later, in August 2010, his office sided with CONSOL and against Virginians in a lawsuit to recover improperly withheld royalties, helping the out-of-state oil company defend against a claim by Virginia landowners.

From August 2010 through April 2012, Cuccinelli’s office (through a Senior Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pigeon) began secretly providing legal research and advice to CONSOL’s attorneys regarding the lawsuit, outside of the scope of the AG office’s official capacity. The Virginia Inspector General is now investigating to determine whether the AG’s office misused taxpayer funds.

Finally, Mr. Cuccinelli, helped CONSOL again earlier this year when he issued another advisory opinion that barred local jurisdictions from using zoning laws to establish fracking moratoriums.

Fracking New York with Another Conflict of Interest: Ecology and Environment’s Frackonomics

A major player in New York’s fracking debate has been exposed as a member of one of the largest oil and gas lobby groups in New York. Ecology and Environment Inc. was hired as an “independent consultant” by the Cuomo Administration to assess the economic impacts of fracking in New York.

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On Earth Day 2013, a letter revealed Ecology and Environment to be a member of the Independent Oil and Gas Association, a pro-fracking lobbying group. This conflict of interest calls into question the integrity of the economic assessment completed for the state in 2011.

The Cuomo Administration hired Ecology and Environment Inc. to perform an economic analysis as part of the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS). According to the Democrat and Chronicle, “The DEC at the time said it had not done enough to study the economic impacts of fracking and said it had decided to engage ‘independent consultants to thoroughly research these types of effects.’”

As it turns out, Ecology and Environment Inc. was anything but “independent.” The company’s 2011 assessment raised eyebrows due to its surprisingly sunny economic outlook for fracking. Anti-fracking groups criticized the results because the assessment didn’t include local economic costs on roads or hospitals. DEC commissioner Joe Martens responded, saying he would ask Ecology and Environment to expand the study – but that work was never publicly completed

IOGA Executive Director Brad Gill wrote in the letter to Cuomo, “The public can be assured that exploration for natural gas in New York is—and has been—safe, good for our environment and for our economy. Our New ‘New’ York must now join the nation and embrace the expansion of responsible natural gas development. We need your help.”

At the time the SGEIS was released, many were concerned that Ecology and Environment’s ties to the energy industry might have influenced their assessment. Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said “This is not an objective analysis done in the public interest. They went to someone with whom they have a work relationship and that also does work for energy interests.”

This letter proves the worries were not unfounded.

As a member of an active pro-fracking lobby organization, Ecology and Environment does not have an objective view towards fracking and should never have been hired to contribute to the SGEIS.

New Yorkers Against Fracking is calling for Governor Cuomo to throw out the SGEIS, due to this and other conflicts of interest. They are asking for a “new, truly independent study that regains the public’s trust and ensures science and facts drive your decision.”

Getty Images / Kris Radder

Getty Images / Kris Radder

C&BP Calls for State Dept. Investigation into Keystone XL Consultant’s Conflicts of Interest

ERMLetter

Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and State Dept. Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel

Yesterday, Checks & Balances Project and 11 environmental, faith-based and public interest organizations called on Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel to investigate whether Environmental Resources Management (ERM) hid conflicts of interest which might have excluded it from performing the Keystone XL environmental assessment and how State Department officials failed to flag inconsistencies in ERM’s proposal. Tom Zeller, Senior Writer at The Huffington Post, wrote an article highlighting the letter callings for an investigation.

Early last month, the State Department released a 2,000 page environmental impact study for the Keystone XL pipeline claiming that the pipeline would not have major impact on the environment. But, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the consulting firm hired to perform the “draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS),” has ties to fossil fuel companies with major stakes in the Alberta Tar Sands. This conflict of interest was not accurately disclosed  in ERM’s answers on a State Department questionnaire. Checks & Balances Project considers ERM’s responses in its proposal to be intentionally misleading statements.

Unredacted Documents Uncover Conflicts of Interest
Last week, Mother Jones released unredacted versions of the ERM proposal, showing that three experts “had done consulting work for TransCanada and other oil companies with a stake in the Keystone’s approval.”

The unredacted biographies show that ERM’s employees have an existing relationship with ExxonMobil and worked for TransCanada within the last three years among other companies involved in the Canadian tar sands.

Here’s more from Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll:

“ERM’s second-in-command on the Keystone report, Andrew Bielakowski, had worked on three previous pipeline projects for TransCanada over seven years as an outside consultant. He also consulted on projects for ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips, three of the Big Five oil companies that could benefit from the Keystone XL project and increased extraction of heavy crude oil taken from the Canadian tar sands.

Another ERM employee who contributed to State’s Keystone report — and whose prior work history was also redacted — previously worked for Shell Oil; a third worked as a consultant for Koch Gateway Pipeline Company, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. Shell and Koch have a significant financial interest in the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. ERM itself has worked for Chevron, which has invested in Canadian tar-sands extraction, according to its website.”

When asked about who at the State Department decided to redact ERM’s biographies, a State Department spokesperson said “ERM proposed redactions of some information in the administrative documents that they considered business confidential.” Disclosing past clients may be business confidential information, but from what the biographies show, ERM may have recommended the redactions to hide conflicts of interest from public disclosure.

Problem with ERM Answers on Conflict of Interest Questionnaire 

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ERM’s Proposal to the State Department

The biographies on ERM’s proposal show that the company has had direct relationships with multiple business entities that could be affected by the proposed work in the past three years.

In the “Organizational Conflict of Interest Questionnaire,” the State Department asks (page 42), “Within the past three years, have you (or your organization) had a direct or indirect relationship (financial, organizational, contractual or otherwise) with any business entity that could be affected in any way by the proposed work?“ ERM’s Project Manager, Steve Koster, checked “No” but appears to have added to the Yes/No questionnaire that, “ERM has no existing contract or working relationship with TransCanada.”

Regardless of the addendum Koster added, he still submitted an incomplete statement when checking “No” to the specific question above. Simply put, the information provided by Mr. Koster was an incomplete statement if one simply reviews the biographies of ERM’s employees for the project.

The State Department Contracting Officer should have flagged this inconsistency when reviewing the staff biographies.  ERM’s answers did not properly reveal in the Yes/No questionnaire that ERM did have a current “direct relationship” with a business enetity that could be affected by the proposed work and a relationship in the past three years with TransCanada, the company building the pipeline.

Koster’s incomplete statement on direct business relationships is not the only odd statement in ERM’s proposal. ERM also answered “No” to the question, “Are you (or your organization) an ‘energy concern?’” which the State Department defines (in part) as: “Any person — (1) significantly engaged in the business of conducting research…related to an activity described in paragraphs (i) through (v).” Paragraph (i) states: “Any person significantly engaged in the business of developing, extracting, producing, refining, transporting by pipeline, converting into synthetic fuel, distributing, or selling minerals for use as an energy source…” ERM as a research firm working for fossil fuel companies is, unequivocally, an energy interest.

So the question must be asked: If ERM is unable to accurately fill out a simple questionnaire regarding conflicts of interest, how can we trust the company to perform an unbiased environmental assessment of a 1,179 mile-long pipeline cutting through the American heartland? And, why did the State Department’s Contracting Officer not flag the inconsistencies in ERM’s Conflict of Interest Questionnaire when reviewing the proposals?

Intentions of State Department and ERM in Question

The Federal Government has strict ethics rules to prevent Organizational Conflicts of Interest (OCIs) from impacting the impartiality of government contracts and to prevent hiring contractors who cannot provide independent and unbiased services to the government.

According to a white paper from the Congressional Research Service, before the State Department could choose ERM as the contractor, the “Contracting Officer” had to make an “affirmative determination of responsibility.” All government contractors (including ERM) must be deemed responsible, in part by meeting strict ethics guidelines, known as “collateral requirements.”

According to current collateral requirements, contractors must be found “nonresponsible” when there are unavoidable and unmitigated OCIs. Checks & Balances Project believes that the Contracting Officer should have deemed ERM “nonresponsible” because the company serves as a contractor for major fossil fuel companies that have a stake in the Keystone XL pipeline. If ERM were “nonresponsible”, the company would have been ineligible to perform the environmental impact review of the Keystone XL pipeline.

These potential material incomplete statements on a Federal Government proposal calls into question the integrity of ERM and threatens millions in government contracts.

If ERM were determined to be “nonresponsible” or “excluded” because of these incomplete statements, it could jeopardize ERM’s ability to perform any work for the Federal Government. Again, according to the Congressional Research Service:

“Decisions to exclude are made by agency heads or their designees (above the contracting officer’s level) based upon evidence that contractors have committed certain integrity offenses, including any “offenses indicating a lack of business integrity or honesty that seriously affect the present responsibility of a contractor.””

Certainly these incomplete statements call into question both the independence of ERM and the judgement of the Contracting Officer in making the “affirmative determination of responsibility.” This proposal process should be investigated by the State Department Inspector General to determine if ERM’s statements are cause for exclusion.

Groups Calling for Inspector General Investigation

We believe ERM used multiple material incomplete statements and had clear conflicts of interest as shown in the unredacted documents. So, why was ERM hired by the State Department?

Checks & Balances Project asked a State Department spokesperson about the conflicts of interest and the spokesperson said: “Based on a thorough consideration of all of the information presented, including the work histories of team members, the Department concluded that ERM has no financial or other interest in the outcome of the project that would constitute a conflict of interest.” Perhaps the State Department’s Contracting Offier made the decision to hire ERM because of the company’s incomplete statements on the conflict of interest questionnaire.

Harold Geisel, Deputy Inspector General, U.S. State Department

Checks & Balances Project along with 11 other groups (Better Future Project, Center for Biological Diversity, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, DeSmogBlog, Forecast the Facts, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, NC WARN, Oil Change International, Public Citizen’s Energy Program and Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth) sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel calling for an investigation into the matter. These incomplete statements and the determination by the Contracting Officer that ERM did not have any conflicts of interest, despite clear evidence to the contrary, are grounds for further investigation.

Keystone XL Environmental Impact Consultant’s Cozy Relationships with Fossil Fuel Interests

ERMFossilRelationshipsBlogEnvironmental Resources Management (ERM), the consulting firm hired to perform the supplemental environmental analysis of the Keystone XL pipeline works for and has worked for fossil fuel companies with a stake in the Canadian Tar Sands. Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll exposed the conflicts of interest in an exclusive story, which included unredacted documents that show the recent work history of ERM’s consultants.

It’s no surprise that ERM painted a rosy picture of Keystone XL’s environmental impact. Their business depends on it. ERM’s major clients in the fossil fuel industry would steer clear of an environmental consulting company that determines fossil fuel projects are not environmentally responsible. ERM claimed in the report that the Keystone
XL pipeline would not lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions or significantly impact the environment along its route.

Last week, Steve Horn from DeSmogBlog documented major problems with another pipeline (the 1,300 mile-long Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC)) determined by an ERM environmental assessment to be “environmentally and socio-economically sound.” Horn wrote, “An Aug. 2008 Wikileaks cable discusses a BTC explosion in a mountainous area of eastern Turkey …which spewed 70,000 barrels of oil into the surrounding area.” The BTC
pipeline caused enormous environmental damage and failed to live up to the jobs hype created by the project developers, which included BP, State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Eni and Total.

Horn goes on to quote Mik Minio-Paluello, co-author of The Oil Road – a new book documenting the slew of destructive impacts of BTC saying, “Supposedly an environmental consultancy, in practice ERM operated more like aPR firm representing BP and now they’re fulfilling a similar role for TransCanada.”

So why does ERM operate more like a PR firm than an environmental consultancy?

Let’s say ERM provided a review claiming a fossil fuel project was skirting safety precautions or moving too quickly to ensure quality seals on the pipeline (see Keystone XL’s faulty welding here). Would a fossil fuel company, whose financial interest is building more fossil fuel infrastructure, want to hire a consultant that results in delays and increased costs for developing that infrastructure?

Checks & Balances Project contacted ERM’s Global Head of Communications Simon Garcia multiple times over the past week without any response.  We requested comment on the following question: Has ERM ever determined that a proposed fossil fuel project was not “environmentally sound” in an assessment?

The answer is probably “no.”

 

 

Disclosing the ‘true ties’ of op-ed writers

Today, 50 current and former journalists, media professors and media professionals joined The Checks and Balances Project to ask the New York Times to end the pervasive practice of industry-funded pundits placing opinion pieces that favors their funders, without these financial ties being disclosed to readers.

Through http://www.trueties.org, petitioners can ask the New York Times to end the masquerade of bought and biased pundits by ensuring that op-ed submission finalists disclose their financial ties – and reveal those conflicts to readers.

Here’s how this masquerade works. Earlier this summer, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Robert Bryce – an increasingly prominent proponent of fossil fuels and an aggressive critic of clean energy technologies – under the byline of “senior fellow” at the Manhattan Institute. Here’s the problem – Mr. Bryce’s employer, the Manhattan Institute, has received nearly three million dollars in funding from fossil fuel interests like ExxonMobil and Koch Industries. Nowhere was Bryce’s ties to fossil fuels told to readers.

The Trueties.org campaign asks the New York Times to set the industry standard and ensure their readers get the full story. By implementing better disclosure standards, the New York Times can stop the “Bryce Masquerade” and ensure better transparency.

Bought and biased pundits have the right to be heard; but we should know their true ties.

Go to www.trueties.org to see the full list of journalists who’ve signed the petition, to sign the petition and to learn more.

Potential Conflict of Interest for National Association of State Fire Marshals

Yesterday, The Checks and Balances Project sent a letter to Jim Narva, the Executive Director of the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) and a for-profit consultant on fire issues, to inquire about potential conflicts of interest.

Based on a tip that clients from Mr. Narva’s private consulting firm have hired him because of his position with the NASFM, we reached out to Mr. Narva, as well as fifty state fire marshals who have placed their trust in him, to clear up any improprieties.

Because fire marshals have one of the most important jobs in the nation – protecting lives and property – they are rightly held to the highest standards of integrity. We simply want to ensure that Mr. Narva’s private sector consulting does not affect the important public safety duties our state fire marshals perform everyday. Narva Letter.