Democracy Forward Requested IG Investigate Senior Advisor Stephen Wackowski’s Interactions with Former Business Associates Tied to Alaska Oil and Gas Development
IG Report Tracks Letter and Supporting Documents Submitted by Democracy Forward
Second IG Report in Two Weeks Finding Ethical Lapses by Trump Appointees at DOI
Washington, D.C. — The Inspector General of the Department of Interior (DOI) released a report late Friday finding “there is no doubt” a Trump political appointee violated his ethics pledge by communicating and meeting with his former business associates.
In March 2019, Democracy Forward asked the Inspector General to investigate whether DOI Senior Advisor for Alaska Affairs, Stephen Wackowski, was interacting with his former oil and gas industry colleagues regarding major seismic testing while DOI was reviewing his former employer’s application for testing permits. These permits, if granted, would likely harm federally protected polar bears and leave indelible scars on Alaska’s arctic wilderness, all in the name of the Trump administration’s efforts to facilitate unprecedented drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR).
While the subject of the investigation is anonymized, the facts relayed in the IG report are consistent with the facts and supporting documents Democracy Forward presented in its March 2019 request that the IG probe Wackowksi’s activities. The Trump-led DOI has planned to choose the most aggressive among possible leasing plans for the ANWR.
“The Trump administration plucked Stephen Wackowski from a company with an interest in oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and put him in charge of oil and gas policy in Alaska, where he had contacts with his former employer that were not disclosed to agency ethics officers,” said Democracy Forward Senior Counsel Travis Annatoyn. “With coziness like that, ethics compliance means more than just signing a piece of paper.”
Executive Order 13770 requires every political appointee to sign an ethics pledge, committing, among other things, not to participate in certain matters related to their former employer or clients for two years. After investigating, the IG found that, despite seeking and following guidance from agency ethics officials on some occasions, the DOI senior political employee violated his ethics pledge because he:
- Did not seek ethics guidance before contacting a scientist who works for his former employer in late 2017 regarding methods for tracking endangered species. “There is no doubt that the senior political employee’s 2017 email exchange … was therefore prohibited under the ethics pledge,” the report states.
- Did not seek ethics guidance before meeting with the scientist who works for his former employer in 2018. A DOI ethics attorney told the IG “ that if they had known about this contact … they would have advised against it.”
The senior official under investigation told the IG that he believed his communications were exempted from ethics rules because they were related to scientific data. However, as the IG notes, there is no scientific data exemption for current DOI employees. The report also concludes that the IG did not find evidence that the contacts that violated the ethics pledge were used for the official’s benefit or the benefit of his former employer.
As previously reported, prior to his role at DOI, Wackowski worked at Fairweather Science, LLC, a firm facilitating fossil fuel development by, among other services, monitoring for polar bear activity. Fairweather’s founder, Jeff Hastings, was also CEO and Chairman of the Board of SAExploration, which in 2018 submitted an application for a major seismic survey in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. SAE put Hastings on leave in August 2019 after the SEC launched an investigation into the firm for alleged misstatements to investors. Although the investigation apparently remains open, SAExploration received a COVID bailout.
Records indicate that, despite his prior employment, Wackowski has communicated with former colleagues even as the Department announced its plans to evaluate SAE’s application by means of an Environmental Assessment instead of a more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement. The Department appears to have reached this decision despite findings that the region’s dwindling polar bear population would be further threatened by the SAE project.
The IG has referred its conclusions to the Office of the Secretary of the Interior’s Chief of Staff for appropriate action.
In addition, in a separate May 29 report, the Interior Department’s Inspector General concluded that Douglas Domenech, Assistant Interior Secretary for Insular and International Affairs, misused his position to help a family member get a job at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.