Business & Lobbying

Ex-Trump Cabinet heads’ lobbying gigs challenge ‘drain the swamp’ message


Former Environment Protect Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s latest gigs since leaving the administration, and the backgrounds of their replacements, have shed light on how the Trump administration isn’t following through with the president’s initial “drain the swamp” message.

Pruitt last week registered as a lobbyist for a state regulator covering energy and natural resources. His replacement, EPA head Andrew Wheeler, is a former energy lobbyist.

Zinke has also found a new home at a lobbying firm that deals with energy issues. His successor, newly-confirmed David Bernhardt, was a lobbyist for agriculture and energy clients for multiple years before joining the Trump administration.

The revealed revolving door within the two agencies, each mired in controversy under Trump’s tenure in the past two years, paints one of the clearest pictures of the president’s failed promises to eliminate special interests in Washington.{mosads}

“The Trump administration’s track record is not great in this area. It’s frustrating because it feels like a missed opportunity. When Mr. Trump ran and said he wanted to drain the swamp… that just simply hasn’t materialized,” Tyler Cole, legislative director at Issue One, a nonpartisan government reform group, told The Hill.

The president requested in 2017 that executive branch appointees sign a pledge that any appointee in an executive agency will not engage in lobbying activities with respect to that agenda for five years after termination.

Pruitt left his post at EPA last July on the heels of a number of ethics and staffing controversies. He registered as a lobbyist with state regulators in Indiana last week to work on energy and natural resources issues.

He has since listed himself as a self-employed consultant with RailPoint Solutions LLC, the parent company of Terre Haute-based mining company Sunrise Coal. The company is attempting a long shot last ditch effort to keep two coal fired plants from shuttering in the state.

“Pruitt is confirming what we knew all along while he was EPA Administrator, he was not interested in doing all he could to protect our kids and our health from pollution, he was doing the bidding of special interests in the fossil fuel industry,” a former EPA spokeswoman told The Hill.

Eric Shaeffer, former director of EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said Pruitt’s landing as a registered lobbyist is not surprising.

“I’m not shocked to see Pruitt come back to life as an energy lobbyist.” he said.  

“There are too many revolving doors in DC as a general matter, but only Trump would pick a coal lobbyist to head EPA. I never took his ‘drain the swamp’ yak-yak seriously.  That was just a lot of misdirection.”

Zinke left his post in January on the tail of an ongoing Justice Department investigation into his actions while Secretary. He signed on with the lobbying firm Turnberry Solutions in February and is also on the board of the Nevada-based gold mining firm U.S. Gold Corp, which focuses on mining exploration and development.

Zinke is not formally registered to lobby, which means he’s not spending 20 percent or more of his time lobbying. He has said that his work would not require him to do so.

In an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence this week, Zinke shrugged off criticisms that he so quickly moved into the privatized lobbying sphere from public service, saying it’s not a conflict of interest.

“As a former secretary, there are restrictions and prohibitions. I have a lifetime ban on foreign lobbying. I have a ban on lobbying the executive branch and using undue influence and there is a prohibition on directly coordinating, corresponding and influencing Department of Interior on those issues that I was personally involved in,” Zinke said.

“It’s all in federal law and there is no conflict of interest. Once again, it’s a fake, false allegation without substance.”

Issue One’s Cole said the recent cycling of Interior and EPA agency heads in and out of lobbying careers is especially notable.

Both agencies largely deal with energy related issues ranging from drilling on public lands to emissions regulations at coal fired plants. Pruitt and Zinke’s replacements, Wheeler and Bernhardt, respectively, are already facing a number of congressional complaints and a handful of investigations into potential breaches of their ethics promise by keeping contact with old clients or writing rules that appear to favor old employers.

Bernhardt was formerly with the Denver firm law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he was a shareholder and chairman of the natural resources law practice.

 Wheeler was formerly with the law and lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels and represented a number of energy clients, among others.

“While every industry plays the lobbying game, it does seem that the energy sector features a notable amount of revolving door activity. I suspect that the vast amounts of money behind both traditional energy sources and renewables is largely what drives individuals to move between regulatory agencies and regulated businesses,” Cole said.

Greg Louer, managing director at Arnold & Porter, said the short time it took for the former agency heads to move to lobbying careers was suspect.

“Registering to lobby soon after public service may be an unusual break in past practice, and I can’t recall a former EPA administrator or Interior Secretary departing the government and becoming a registered lobbyist so soon after their service,” he said.But David Tamasi, former finance chairman for the Trump Victory Fund, said all former administration officials are in demand after leaving.

“There is always strong demand on K St. and corporate interests from people, regardless of the issue who have real insight into an administration,” Tamasi, founder of Chartwell Strategy Group, told The Hill. “It is even more so with this administration, which continues to vex even experienced Washington hands regarding the policy making process.”Edward Karr, CEO for U.S. Gold Corp, said Zinke’s relationship with the Interior Department was part of the reason he was hired and that one of the mining projects the company has is on land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

Instead of criticism, a number of lobbyists heaped praise on Pruitt for officially registering as a lobbyist, a move they said offers a level of transparency not often embraced by former Washington officials.

Initially registering to lobby is “partially commendable,” Cole noted, as other former officials don’t until they are forced by public scrutiny.Karl Rove, former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, just registered this year for the first time to lobby for Rivada Networks. He has been working as an advisor and is an investor in the company.

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) faced criticism over work for the Chinese telecom company ZTE earlier this year. He initially said he would not be lobbying for the company, but in January registered as a lobbyist after he was pressed to do so by watchdogs.

Registering puts you “in the public eye and subject to government oversight and enforcement, so one would assume they’re doing their work accordingly,” Louer said.

He added that a registered lobbyist provides the public with additional insight into their work that would not be available without registration.

“We’ve seen so many people attempt to circumvent the rules and the rules are very easy to get along,” Cole said.

While Louer doesn’t see the energy and environment connection as odd, he does see a positive in Pruitt and Zinke’s career decisions.

“This can certainly be a net positive for the public, since they carry forward that experience and can offer unique insights that enrich government service. There is nothing unusual about that or particularly unique to the energy and environmental community, from my perspective,” Louer said.

Tags Bill Clinton David Bernhardt Environmental policy in the United States Federal government of the United States Lobbying in the United States Presidency of Donald Trump Ryan Zinke Ryan Zinke Scott Pruitt Scott Pruitt

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