Ethical Questions Continue to Haunt DOE Leadership

Potential Conflicts of Interest and Doubts about Impartiality Persist

Today, Federal ethics watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust responded to a letter from members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform regarding conduct by the Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy, Kelly Speakes-Backman. The letter relates to a continuing series of potential ethical issues that raise serious questions about Ms. Speakes-Backman’s ability to act impartially, particularly in light of ethical challenges faced by Secretary Granholm.

Federal employees are required to avoid situations in which their impartiality could be questioned or in which former employers, clients and family members are involved. Yet on several occasions Ms. Speakes-Backman, who previously was CEO of the Energy Storage Association (ESA), has appeared to endorse ESA and its policy requests. She spoke approvingly of work ESA performed during her tenure and how the organization’s initiatives influenced policy at the Department. At a conference in April, she delivered a keynote address in which an ESA “Leadership Circle” member was the only sponsor. On May 13, Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed a complaint and FOIA request with the Department of Energy’s Ethics Office regarding these and other incidents. The Department has yet to produce any records or respond to the allegations.

This apparent disregard for ethical commitments is troubling but may not be an isolated incident at DOE. More than two months after confirmation, Secretary Jennifer Granholm continued to own stock options in electric bus company Proterra. This is the same company specifically promoted by the Administration and which stood to gain significant financial benefits from DOE initiatives. Unfortunately, her eventual sale of the stock options raised as many questions as it answered.

“It appears, from the top-down, ethics obligations are taking a back seat at DOE,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “The American public needs to trust that Executive Branch leaders are making decisions that are impartial and free of influence from conflicts of interest. Secretary Granholm’s actions with respect to Proterra and Ms. Speakes-Backman’s continuing conduct regarding her former employer certainly do not engender trust in the agency.”

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