Partisan politics at independent agency draws bipartisan rebuke

Partisan politics at independent agency draws bipartisan rebuke

A top aide at the federal government’s energy regulator is under fire from critics on both sides of the aisle who are accusing him of compromising the agency's independence through overtly political statements.

Anthony Pugliese, chief of staff at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), has been accused of endorsing President TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau intends to wrap up count on Oct. 5 despite judge's order Top House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents New Yorkers report receiving ballots with wrong name, voter addresses MORE’s push to rescue struggling coal and nuclear power plants in his media appearances, on radio shows like Breitbart News Sunday, and while speaking at public events as a FERC employee.

The comments have drawn bipartisan condemnation from former FERC officials and from top congressional Democrats who say Pugliese is putting the agency’s fiercely guarded independence at risk.

“Had I made statements like that that brought question to the agency, I would have felt obligated to resign,” said Alison Silverstein, who served between 2001 and 2004 as the top adviser to Pat Wood III, the Republican FERC chairman nominated by former President George W. Bush.

“FERC is a quasi-judicial agency, and for all of its existence, all of the chairs I’ve known have been fiercely apolitical,” she added.

Jon Wellinghoff, who served as FERC’s chairman from 2009 to 2013, said it’s alarming for Pugliese to be speaking so openly about matters within the agency’s jurisdiction, particularly because it could give the impression that he’s speaking for the commission.

“It’s extremely unusual. It’s never happened in the history of the commission, to my knowledge,” said Wellinghoff, who was tapped by former President Obama for the top job at FERC.

“The agency needs to be looked at as impartial, needs to be looked at as apolitical,” he added. “Certainly none of my staff went out and made the kind of speeches that Pugliese has made.” 

The bipartisan concerns highlight the tough balancing act that FERC plays as it regulates bulk electricity markets, interstate natural gas and other federal energy matters. Its five commissioners are nominated by the president -- but they can’t easily be fired -- and the agency is legally obligated to be impartial and not favor any energy source over others.

Pugliese’s boss, FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyreKevin J. McIntyreWe cannot allow FERC to ignore our climate crisis GOP commissioner on federal energy panel dies Senate should reject Trump’s radical nominee to key energy panel MORE (R), has downplayed the controversy. He told Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Key Democrat opposes GOP Section 230 subpoena for Facebook, Twitter, Google Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg acknowledges failure to take down Kenosha military group despite warnings | Election officials push back against concerns over mail-in voting, drop boxes MORE (Wash.) and Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), the top Democrats overseeing the agency in Congress, that he had advance notice of Pugliese’s public appearances, and that Pugliese doesn’t speak for the commission.

“While I understand your concerns, I can assure you that this Commission remains independent and impartial,” he wrote in a letter to the lawmakers released this month. “Furthermore, please know that I am strongly committed to preserving this agency's statutorily structured independence and impartiality.”

Cantwell and Pallone had in August asked McIntyre to explain whether Pugliese’s comments violate impartiality standards, and whether he approved of the remarks.

After McIntyre responded, the lawmakers said they were glad to hear his explanation, but still concerned.

“It was encouraging to hear Chairman McIntyre clarify that the commission’s official orders, like the 5-0 rejection of the Trump coal bailout, are what count,” they said in a joint statement. “However, speeches and interviews by the commission’s top staffer that are laced with bad-faith partisan attacks serve to undermine FERC’s traditional impartiality and neutrality.”

FERC in January unanimously rejected a Department of Energy proposal to require higher payments to coal and nuclear plants for their electricity, a move that many viewed as an effort to provide government support for those sources of energy.

Pugliese previously served in Trump’s post-election transition team and as the White House liaison for the Department of Transportation — a resume that outsiders say should raise alarms as the hallmark of someone who is overly political. He was brought to FERC last year by interim Chairman Neil ChatterjeeIndranil (Neil) ChatterjeeAppeals Court's support for FERC rule ramps up the need for flexible energy programs Watchdog finds agencies using outdated standards for gas export facilities Overnight Energy: 350 facilities skip reporting water pollution | Panel votes to block Trump's 'secret science' rule | Court upholds regulation boosting electric grid storage MORE (R).

During a July appearance on Breitbart News Sunday, a radio show from the right-wing news outlet Breitbart News, Pugliese spoke at length about the benefits he saw from Trump’s energy policies.

“When you look at how President Trump became president, I think Pennsylvania is a good area to look at,” Pugliese said, speaking of his native state. “There were a number of places I remember in Pennsylvania where the president said he was going to strive to bring steel back, and people laughed and mocked him, but that’s exactly what’s happening right now.”

He defended Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryPresident Trump faces Herculean task in first debate Energy secretary questions consensus that humans cause climate change OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push resolution to battle climate change, sluggish economy and racial injustice | Senators reach compromise on greenhouse gas amendment stalling energy bill | Trump courts Florida voters with offshore drilling moratorium MORE’s efforts to prop up coal and nuclear plants, taking issue with those who labeled it as a “bailout.”

“Those two resources — coal and nuclear, specifically — have a lot resilient attributes that, from a national security perspective, are hard to deny,” he said.

Pugliese also criticized New York lawmakers, saying there opposition to natural gas pipelines was “purely political.”

“You still have parts of the country that are controlled by members of the Democratic Party and others that are determined to ensure that no infrastructure goes through their states, and are determined to say ‘no’ just because the Trump administration is supporting it,” he said.

The following month he spoke at an American Nuclear Society event and said he was working with the Trump administration to identify “critical” power plants that need support, as part of the administration's controversial plan to give aid to coal and nuclear plants.

“We are working with [the Department of Defense] and [the Department of Energy] and the National Security Council to identify the plants that we think would be absolutely critical to ensuring that not only our military bases, but things like hospitals and other critical infrastructure, is able to be maintained, regardless of what natural or manmade disasters might occur,” he said, in remarks first reported by E&E News.

FERC spokesman Craig Cano said Pugliese’s comments show technical assistance, not an endorsement of policy.

“FERC is an independent agency and therefore has not assisted in the development of policy, but provides technical assistance as subject matter experts,” Cano said.

In an episode of FERC’s podcast last week, McIntyre again stood by his chief of staff and called him “highly qualified.”

“My chief of staff has primary duties that include overseeing our agency's day-to-day activities and managing the efforts of the program office directors,” McIntyre said. “He is highly qualified to serve as chief of staff because of his demonstrated leadership ability.”

Nonetheless, the remarks added fuel to arguments that Pugliese is out of bounds with his political boosterism.

“I’ve never seen a chief of staff act like this,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the left-leaning Public Citizen.

“The independence of FERC is something that has always been a given. And Pugliese is acting like a political hack,” said Slocum, who’s been with Public Citizen since 2000.