Press Releases

PPT Gives Thanks for Agency Ethics Officials

We honor the work they do to protect the public’s trust

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust expressed its thanks to Executive Branch agency ethics officials who help to protect the public’s trust. These career civil servants can sometimes be forced into difficult situations by political appointees and leadership but are consistently admirable defenders of the public’s interests.
 
PPT commends the ethics officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for example, for resisting efforts from a political appointee to obtain a waiver from obligations of the Biden Ethics Pledge and for providing advice and guidance that prevented her from committing a potential ethics violation. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, PPT obtained documents detailing the conversations in which Peggy Bailey, who worked for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and was on the board of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) prior to joining HUD, attempted to obtain a waiver to allow her to “engage with these key partners.” Ethics officials denied the request and held firm, noting the differing circumstances, even after Ms. Bailey referenced the ethics waiver granted to a former colleague of hers at CBPP for the former colleague’s work at the Office of Management and Budget.
 
Earlier, HUD’s ethics officials had denied a request from Ms. Bailey to speak at a panel for NLICH for which the organization was charging admission to attend. Ms. Bailey was allowed to participate on a panel for a smaller NLIHC event for which no admission was charged.

“This Thanksgiving we at Protect the Public’s Trust give thanks for the tireless, and sometimes thankless, work of federal ethics officials,” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, said. “They perform a vital function in protecting the American public’s trust in its government, often under very trying circumstances.”

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PPT Seeks Information on Federal Employees’ Attendance at Overseas Climate Conference

Nine agencies sent personnel to conference while many federal employees continue pandemic-related telework

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with a number of agencies seeking documents related to planning and travel for federal employees to attend the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, UK. Media reports indicate the United States sent more than 160 delegates to the conference, which concluded this past weekend.

PPT submitted requests to the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, State, the Interior, and Transportation; the Environmental Protection Agency; NASA, and the United States Agency for International Development requesting documents around COP26 travel. In addition, PPT sent a FOIA request to the Department of Commerce regarding travel by the Administrator and other employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to COP26 as well as for Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and other Commerce employees to attend a related conference in London. Secretary Raimondo delivered an address (“The Road to COP26”) at the CS London Climate Change Business Forum 2021 in the weeks leading up to the Glasgow conference.

The watchdog is also seeking information regarding the telework status of federal employees who attended. The information sought would indicate whether those who traveled to Europe to attend the conference in-person were on a pandemic-related telework status during the month prior.

“It is incumbent upon those who serve in the federal government to be good stewards of the resources the American public provides to them, which includes avoiding extravagant or excessive travel,” said Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, Michael Chamberlain. “The American public would certainly question the advisability of sending employees to mingle in large groups at a conference while many are still working from home due to the pandemic. These agencies could definitely make tremendous steps forward in improving the public’s trust by providing transparency with the requested records.”

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Watchdog Spotlights Ethics Woes at DOI as Senior Nominee’s Committee Vote Once Again Delayed

Senator Murkowski confronted Laura Daniel-Davis at hearing over “inappropriate” behavior by political appointees

In the wake of news reports indicating the vote on a Department of the Interior (DOI) nominee was postponed for the second time in two weeks, Protect the Public’s Trust highlighted a series of possible ethics issues plaguing the Department recently. Senate Energy Committee leadership moved the vote back after it was clear an insufficient number of Senators were present at the meeting who supported the confirmation of Laura Daniel-Davis for Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals.
 
Ms. Daniel-Davis experienced a rocky confirmation hearing, with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski expressing her “frustration” and “real anger” over reports of “inappropriate” behavior by Interior staff. Senator Murkowski’s heated questioning occurred in response to evidence that political appointees had been inappropriately engaging with special interests, including former employers, during tribal consultation.
 
The incident discussed by Sen. Murkowski represents just one of a number of potential ethics issues at Interior during Secretary Haaland’s tenure. Last week, PPT sent a letter to DOI Solicitor Robert Anderson, the chief ethics official at the Department, detailing a series of possible ethics violations, including one that is the subject of an Inspector General investigation. The senior official involved in that incident, Deputy Director of Policy and Programs at the Bureau of Land Management Nada Culver, also participated in the tribal consultation. Her presence in a consultation dealing with matters at issue in the IG investigation could create even further ethics issues for the Department.

“At a time when the American public’s trust in government is at an all-time low, the Department of the Interior is not living up to the Administration’s claim to be the most ethical in history,” said Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “We at PPT will continue to restore the public’s trust by shining a light on these and other possible incidents of misconduct.”

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Watchdog Seeks Investigation of Possible Ethics Violations by Energy Secretary Granholm

Complaint is the latest in a series of ethics concerns arising during Granholm’s tenure 

Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT), a federal watchdog group, filed a complaint today detailing allegations of ethical misconduct by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. In the complaint, PPT alleges Secretary Granholm committed ethics violations related to electric vehicle component manufacturer Proterra, where she formerly served as a Board member. Today’s complaint follows on the heels of several Hatch Act complaints against the embattled Secretary, including one by PPT, as well as multiple ethics complaints against one of her top lieutenants.
 
Granholm served on Proterra’s Board of Directors from March of 2017 until her confirmation as Energy Secretary in February of this year. Her relationship with Proterra made headlines earlier this year when President Biden promoted Proterra’s work in a widely-covered virtual tour of its Greenville, South Carolina facility. As the President was touting the company’s work, Granholm held more than $1 million in Proterra stock options.
 
At the time, PPT and at least two members of Congress expressed concerns about the potential of Department of Energy (DOE) programs and initiatives benefitting Proterra, especially with the intense focus on electric vehicles by DOE and the Administration. PPT’s complaint contends recent DOE grants meant to support electrifying commercial vehicles may have done precisely that.
 
On November 1, Secretary Granholm, with Proterra vehicles serving as the backdrop, participated with Vice President Kamala Harris and other federal officials at a ceremony announcing awards for DOE’s SuperTruck 3 program. This event was merely the latest and most flagrant example of her involvement in the program.
 
The Energy Secretary promoted the funding opportunity to trucking industry representatives in April, while she still held the Proterra stock options. At least three of the recipients of SuperTruck 3 grants, with awards totaling nearly $80 million, are companies with ties to Proterra. Daimler, for instance, received a $25.7 million SuperTruck 3 grant. In recent years, the company has made multiple large investments in Proterra and created exclusive partnerships between Daimler commercial vehicle divisions and Proterra. While announcing its deal to go public, which involved an investment of more than $400 million from a group led by Daimler Trucks, Proterra described the company as a “strategic partner.” All of these occurred while Ms. Granholm served on Proterra’s Board.

“PPT was one voice among many that raised concerns about Secretary Granholm’s ties to Proterra while DOE was promoting initiatives from which the company could benefit,” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, said. “While her previous actions left the public wondering about her involvement in decisions that could benefit the company, last week’s event with the Vice President appeared to cross the line into ethical misconduct. The Biden Administration has promised to be the most ethical in history, but that does not seem to have materialized at DOE. With what appears to be a pattern of possible misconduct by Secretary Granholm and her leadership, it is little wonder why the American public’s trust in its government is at an all-time low.”

PPT Red Flags Apparent Pattern of Ethical Misconduct among Senior DOI Officials

Preliminary investigation suggests ineffective supervision may have contributed to multiple ethical breaches

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust alerted Department of the Interior (DOI) Solicitor Robert Anderson to multiple alleged ethical violations by top officials under his supervision. These potential violations, some of which have resulted in PPT complaints to the DOI Inspector General (IG), may signal a significant void in ethical leadership at the Department.

In his official capacity as DOI’s top legal official, Mr. Anderson is responsible for oversight and management of the Department’s political appointees and its Ethics Office. Yet, during his tenure, PPT has documented a series of possible violations by high-ranking political appointees, including those directly under his supervision. 

Deputy Solicitor for Water Resources Daniel Cordalis participated in the reversal of a high-profile decision by senior career attorneys in a manner that appears to provide direct and predictable benefits to an entity that is not only a former client of his but currently employs his wife. In addition, Senator Lisa Murkowski expressed her “frustration” and “real anger” during a confirmation hearing for an assistant secretary nominee over another incident. The nominee, Laura Daniel-Davis, confirmed that DOI officials permitted uninvited organizations to attend a virtual tribal consultation. Some of these organizations had relationships with DOI participants, including one co-founded by Mr. Anderson.

To further muddy the ethical waters, senior official Nada Culver lead the aforementioned consultation call, which involved issues related to the ongoing IG investigation of Culver. In addition to the letter to Solicitor Anderson, PPT filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information about the tribal consultation raised during Ms. Daniel-Davis’ congressional testimony.

“PPT has uncovered what appears to be a pattern of possible misconduct at the Department of the Interior,” said Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “While the Biden Administration has promised to be the most ethical in history, there appears to be a leadership vacuum at DOI in this area. With trust in the government at an all-time low, it is imperative that leaders at Interior take the steps necessary to assure the American public that transparency and integrity in government remain more than just an empty promise in a public hearing.”

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PPT Lauds Increased Congressional Interest in Secretary Haaland’s Daily Calendar

Department political staff admit involvement in decision to delay and redact public calendar information 

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust echoed the concerns of members of the House Natural Resources Committee and Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources regarding the lack of transparency around Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s schedule, calendars and meetings. Despite promises of transparency by political staff at the Department of the Interior (DOI), specifically in the area of providing information regarding the Secretary’s calendar, only the first two weeks of her more than seven months in office are available for public view. What little is available discloses no substantive insight into the attendees and content of her meetings since taking over in March.

As the committee members’ letter explains, the prior two administrations had “routinely disclose[d] the Secretary’s schedule, meeting requests, and travel records.” Last month, PPT filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit in federal court demanding DOI release Secretary Haaland’s calendar and communications regarding her meetings in response to a FOIA request the watchdog submitted in May. Evidence also exists that interference by political appointees may be responsible for the lack of transparency, with Director of Communications Melissa Schwartz admitting she removed information from public view because it didn’t “look as nice as a communications professional might want it to look.” 

Today’s letter comes on the heels of a similar inquiry sent to the Department recently by a member of the Senate committee. How the Department will respond or whether it will agree to adopt the practice of regularly posting Haaland’s calendar as previous Interior Secretaries have done, remains to be seen. It is also unclear what communications the Secretary has had with her former colleague Chairman Raul Grijalva, given his previous concern over calendar practices in the last Administration. 

“Throughout the history of this great Nation the American public has demanded transparency from those who serve it,” said Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “Yet the Department of the Interior has provided virtually nothing to shed light on Secretary Haaland’s meetings and travel for more than half a year. This in itself is troubling enough but, when compounded by the confession that political appointees may have interfered with disclosure, it is even more disturbing. We look forward to the day when Secretary Haaland’s Interior finally provides the transparency that not only is expected by the public they serve but that lives up to the promises the Administration has made time and again. Meager details about 12 days over the course of 7 months is transparency at its worst.”

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PPT Files Hatch Act Complaint Against Energy Secretary Granholm

Appearance at campaign event in Virginia alleged to have crossed the line

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel alleging that statements made by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm violated the Hatch Act (5 U.S.C. § 7323). Granholm’s remarks occurred during her appearance at a campaign event for a candidate for Virginia governor.

At the event in Fairfax, Virginia, Granholm reportedly highlighted recent actions taken in her official capacity as Energy Secretary and referred to “my boss,” President Biden, while campaigning for Democratic candidate for Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. Federal officials are prohibited from appearing in their official capacities and from using their titles or federal government resources to campaign for candidates. This is not the first instance of a high-ranking administration official appearing to run afoul of the Hatch Act with respect to the Virginia governor’s race. Less than two weeks ago, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s comments from the podium spurred a complaint from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Nor is this the first such complaint related to statements made by Granholm, who was the subject of a Hatch Act complaint last week.

“Across Administrations from Julian Castro to Kellyanne Conway to Jen Psaki and now Jennifer Granholm, this type of behavior is problematic,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “In what appears to be a pattern for Secretary Granholm, it seems she was at an official event and went so far as to reference her duties at DOE in that event to bolster her endorsement of Candidate McAuliffe. Public service is a public trust and appearances matter. PPT is filing a Hatch Act complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. All Americans should expect a vigorous investigation.”

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Complaint Alleges Scientific Integrity Violations by Federal Health Officials

Several statements by CDC and NIH may have misrepresented the results of a study they touted

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust requested the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) investigate possible violations of the agency’s scientific integrity policy by senior officials. The federal watchdog alleged that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) on multiple occasions misrepresented the results of a study on the CDC website and in public appearances.

On August 6, 2021, the CDC issued a press release highlighting a study from Kentucky that, according to several medical experts, appeared to misrepresent the findings of the study. Though the study made no comparison between subjects who did and did not have natural immunity from a previous infection, the headline trumpeted, “New CDC Study: Vaccination Offers Higher Protection than Previous COVID-19 Infection.” The press release also stated the study’s “data further indicate that COVID-19 vaccines offer better protection than natural immunity alone…”

Several days later, NIH Director Francis Collins, citing the Kentucky study, declared, “Yes, Bret, I can say that” when asked by Fox News anchor Bret Baier if he could “definitively say…the vaccine provides better protection than the antibodies that you get from actually having had COVID-19?” A Harvard epidemiologist declared, “Francis Collins is misleading the public…He falsely claims less reinfections after vaccine than after COVID disease.” Another medical professor decried Collins’ statement as “frustrating.”

In addition to HHS’s Chief Science Officer and Inspector General, PPT addressed its complaint to Dr. Eric S. Lander, Science Advisor to President Biden, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the official selected to convene the President’s Scientific Integrity Task Force. PPT is hopeful OSTP and the Task Force will view these science and public health concerns as an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the high-minded principles expressed in the President’s Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking.

“Trust is a very precious commodity for public health officials and medical professionals,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “The public’s loss of trust in these officials can have tragic, even deadly, consequences. This is precisely why HHS and its divisions have such strong policies and principles governing scientific integrity and agency communications. But even the strongest policy or commitment to principles does nothing to protect the public’s trust if it’s not enforced. We look forward to HHS investigating this potential violation, correcting the record and demanding its employees be held to the high standards the public expects.”

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PPT Applauds Fed Action on Conflicts of Interest

Federal Reserve places new restrictions on stock trading and investing by top officials

Today, ethics watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust lauded moves by the Federal Reserve to strengthen rules designed to prevent potential conflicts of interest. In the wake of a controversy over stock trading by Federal Reserve bank presidents that resulted in two resignations, the Fed added rules to ban individual stock purchases and place other constraints on investment activity by top officials.

Unfortunately, these actions represent a rare example of today’s federal government responding to concerns regarding bias and ethics. While the Federal Reserve’s ability to influence individual companies and economic sectors is unique and was magnified by the economic disruptions of the pandemic, the new rules and the scandal that spurred them underline the necessity for all federal agencies to continually assess and evaluate the ethics restrictions they have in place. Protect the Public’s Trust has identified and highlighted a number of instances of potential conflicts and possible misconduct among high-ranking staff at several agencies, including the Departments of the Interior, Health and Human Services, and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. We hope the Fed’s actions are noticed by their colleagues in other agencies.

“The perception that government officials can profit individually from the actions they take at their agencies is a significant reason the American public’s trust in its government is at an all-time low,” Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, said. “We support the Fed taking steps to help restore that trust but that work is far from over. As we have documented, incidents of high-ranking officials possibly crossing ethical lines have not disappeared and it’s incumbent upon agencies to step up their efforts at self-policing.”

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Congressional Indictment Highlights Necessity of All Public Servants Complying with Ethics Obligations

Restoring the public’s trust requires observing the highest standards

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust responded to the federal grand jury indictment of a Nebraska congressman for possibly violating federal law. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was reportedly indicted over allegations he “concealed information and made false statements to authorities.”

The American public must be able to trust in those who agree to serve and represent them. Our public servants, regardless of their political party, ideological leanings or the capacity in which they serve, whether as elected officials, political appointees or career staff, should be held to high standards of behavior. When serious and legitimate allegations come to light, it is vital that those allegations be investigated fully and fairly and that there are consequences for those found to have committed misconduct.

“Public service is a public trust,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “With Americans’ trust in their government already at an all-time low it is especially important for our public servants to adhere to the highest principles of ethics, honesty and integrity. Those who fail to live up to these obligations should be held accountable.”

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