A top political aide to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar oversaw the permitting of renewable energy projects worth millions of dollars in tax credits while at the same time dating one of the developer’s lobbyists, according to an investigation released today by the Interior inspector general.
Steve Black, who was Salazar’s senior counselor, also accepted more than $1,000 in hotel rooms and dinners from developer NextEra Energy Resources during trips with the lobbyist – money he did not pay back until he was contacted by the IG, the investigation revealed.
The findings are an indictment of one of Salazar’s closest advisers and drew fire from a top House Republican who has accused the Obama administration of giving preferential treatment to the renewable energy industry.
“It highlights numerous examples of potential conflicts of interests that are very troubling,” said House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), whose panel reported on potential ethics lapses by Black in September. “It’s evident there are ongoing problems with the Interior Department’s ethics program that need to be addressed so that accountability and transparency can be restored.”
In addition to dating the NextEra lobbyist, Black also maintained close personal relationships with a top NextEra executive and another lobbyist, the IG discovered.
Black also pressured Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service employees to expedite and expand renewable energy development on public lands in the West, despite the employees’ environmental concerns, the IG said.
For example, FWS Director Dan Ashe told the IG that Black was inappropriately “leaning on my people” to promote a solar project in the Ivanpah Valley in California.
Black, who resigned from Interior in May 2013, now works as a renewable energy attorney for Bingham McCutchen LLP. He did not respond to an email for comment today.
The IG brought its concerns to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, but that office declined to seek prosecution.
Notably, none of the federal employees interviewed by the IG reported that Black gave NextEra preferential treatment. They also did not report feeling pressured to make decisions specifically benefiting the company, the IG said.
Also, Interior ethics officials said Black’s romantic relationship with NextEra lobbyist Manal Yamout did not technically require a recusal. But ethics officials did express numerous concerns about the appearance of the relationship due to his work in renewable energy.
Black first met Yamout in 2009 while working on a state-federal policy group designed to streamline renewable energy development in California. Yamout, who was special adviser to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), accepted a government affairs job with NextEra in July 2011.
Black and Yamout began their romantic relationship in mid-August of that year during a trip to the Grand Canyon.
But Black did not recuse himself from NextEra issues at Interior until March 8, 2012, according to the IG.
“Before Black recused himself from NextEra, he was involved in permitting issues for two NextEra projects with millions of dollars of renewable energy tax credits at stake,” the report found. “He also referred a NextEra solar project to a White House list of priority projects.”
Yamout was last listed as a lobbyist for NextEra in mid-2013, according to Senate records.
Even after Black’s recusal, an email in early 2013 showed he may have been involved in NextEra’s potential agreement for shared use of a generator tie line with enXco, another renewable energy company, the IG said.
Black also maintained friendly ties with NextEra’s vice president of government affairs, the IG learned. The two worked together on “numerous project issues” involving NextEra’s North Sky River wind project and its Genesis and McCoy solar projects.
After moving to Washington, D.C., that vice president told NextEra officials in a Sept. 29, 2011, email that he was “easing into a friendship” with Black. Months later, he wrote that he was “very close” to Black and dined with him every few weeks.
David Markarian was NextEra’s vice president of government affairs at the time. Markarian, who now works for the energy efficiency firm EnergySavvy, today said he had not seen the IG report and could not comment.
The IG also found that Black was friends with another “attorney/lobbyist” for NextEra and had attended his wedding, his daughter’s bat mitzvah and other events. The attorney/lobbyist in 2007 had donated at least $1,000 to Salazar’s Senate campaign, the IG found.
In a June 1, 2011, email pertaining to NextEra’s North Sky River project, the company’s vice president told other NextEra officials that the attorney/lobbyist had “the Colorado mafia/DC/DOI stroke that you/we may need either right away or right around the corner.”
Black also pressured FWS employees to keep lands available for development in Interior’s draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a sweeping proposal to promote solar, wind and geothermal development across 22 million acres of the Southern California desert over the next three decades, the IG found.
One FWS biologist said employees felt pressured by Black to include areas in the plan that were not good for renewable energy development.
“The biologist later said she never felt pressured by any DOI officials to do anything that went against scientific standards, but said of the DRECP: ‘We need to find a balance, [and] I’m not sure we’re striking it right now,'” the IG report said.
Ashe, FWS’s director, told the IG that Black was being “too forceful” on a BrightSource Energy solar project in the Ivanpah Valley. He told the secretary’s then-Chief of Staff Laura Davis that Black should lay off and that the project involved a controversial FWS consultation on the desert tortoise.
“I told Laura that this is going to be a difficult project to get over the finish line,” Ashe said, according to the IG report. “I don’t need Steve leaning on my people.”
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s Chief of Staff Tommy Beaudreau in an Oct. 23 letter to Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said the report “demonstrates that the department has a process in place that employees can use to determine whether to recuse themselves from particular matters.”
The department’s ethics official, solicitor’s office and other officials worked with Black to address the “apparent conflicts of interest,” Beaudreau said. He added that Interior has initiated steps to improve its monitoring of potential conflicts of interest and better train employees.
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