Democrat Katie McGinty’s bid for U.S. Senate is being powered by a longtime commitment to clean energy and natural gas. But skeptics say the way she’s moved between the public and private sector puts her resume under a cloud.
Ms. McGinty’s environmental credentials include advising former Sen. Al Gore and heading the Council on Environmental Quality during the Clinton Administration. She also headed Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection between 2003 and 2008 under Gov. Ed Rendell, on whose watch the state pursued both renewable energy and natural-gas development.
“Energy is critical to our environment, our economy, our national security,” Ms. McGinty said. “We have to develop energy cleanly, tackling climate change and keeping jobs here at home.”
But her work since leaving state government in July 2008 has generated criticism.
“She’s used her role as a government official to profit from the revolving door,” said Alleigh Marre, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which hopes to see incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey re-elected next year.
In October 2008, Ms. McGinty took a board position with NRG Energy, an increasingly green-focused power provider with natural-gas, coal, wind and other energy facilities across the state. Between 2008 and 2013, when Ms. McGinty left the board, she received $1.1 million in cash and stock awards, SEC filings show.
Ms. McGinty also took a board position at Iberdrola USA in 2009. The wind-energy and natural gas firm had previously acquired Community Energy, a renewable-energy developer from which the state purchased power. The two firms parted ways in 2009, but in 2010, Iberdrola received a $10 million federal stimulus grant though the state, to help build a Fayette County wind farm. Ms. McGinty would say only that she earned “the same as all the board members made” at Iberdrola, a privately held subsidiary of a Spanish firm that does not publicly report such compensation.
Ms. McGinty said she didn’t lobby the Rendell Administration on behalf of those firms or others she consulted for; state lobbying-disclosure records show no such activity on her part. “I’m proud to have served as a board member of Iberdrola and NRG, both recognized leaders in renewable energy,” she said. “I was involved in encouraging management in investing in clean energy.”
But Ms. Marre noted that Ms. McGinty was still on Iberdrola’s board in 2014, when she was campaigning for governor, and criticizing incumbent Tom Corbett’s energy policy.
“It’s not just that she is benefiting financially,” Ms. Marre said of Ms. McGinty’s Iberdrola ties. “She then turns around and campaigns on it.”
Other than a one-year ban on lobbying, there’s no state law barring officials from post-government employment. But when high-level officials work in industries they once oversaw, it can “call into question who they were serving in their final months: the public, or a future employer?” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Harrisburg watchdog group Common Cause.
Some environmental activists echo that concern.
Most environmentalists regard Ms. McGinty warmly. They tout accomplishments like the Rendell administration’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, which is on pace to have sources like solar, wind and new coal technologies providing 18 percent of the state’s power by 2020.
“The Rendell administration spearheaded many of the commonwealth’s top environmental initiatives,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment. “It might not have happened at all if Secretary McGinty wasn’t tenaciously working the halls.”
But Ms. McGinty also presided over the onset of “fracking” for natural gas in shale deposits – a practice hotly debated by some environmentalists.
“Her work on clean energy is like community service: It hasn’t absolved her of the original crime” of backing natural gas, said Alex Lotorto, shale gas program coordinator for the Energy Justice Network.
Mr. Lotorto was particularly concerned about Ms. McGinty’s ties to firms in the gas industry, which include consulting work along with her NRG post. “She was DEP secretary when it was time to make the call on whether this industry should be welcomed, and then she went to work for the industry,” he said.
A spokeswoman said NRG did not comment on former board members. Ms. McGinty noted that shale drilling “was only in its infancy” during her DEP tenure, and that “Pennsylvania was a nationally and internationally renowned environmental leader during my tenure.”
Mr. Rendell said, Ms. McGinty “was the first person who came to me and said ‘this is going to be good for the economy, but we’ve got to pass regulations to do it.’” The administration later crafted new rules governing well construction and the disposal of contaminated frackwater.
Mr. Rendell said Ms. McGinty’s “fabulous job” of pursuing wind and solar firms helped the state rank third nationwide in a 2009 Pew Charitable Trust survey of green jobs. As for the conflict-of-interest complaints about her private-sector work, he said, “All you’re doing is fighting for the things you fought for in office. Where you’d have to worry is if Katie McGinty was hired by someone and then starts attacking wind companies.”
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