Politician with handful of dollars at microphone.

From 2017 through 2021, more than 300 top officials at the U.S. energy department held investments related to the agency’s work, in violation of department ethics guidelines, a Wall Street Journal investigation shows.

More than 70 top officials held stocks in major oil companies, including ExxonMobil. More than 130 reported about 2,700 trades in stocks, bonds, and options in firms the department’s ethics office deemed related to the agency’s work.

Although the ethics office advised the officials to divest the holdings, most did not, the WSJ reported. 

The office’s lawyers review officials’ annual financial disclosure statements. When an official is found to have a financial interest in a company with business before the agency, the official is instructed to have no dealings in matters related to that company.

If a lawyer believes the official’s work could substantially influence a company’s financial performance, the official can be instructed to sell the investment in question.

However, the ethics office has no enforcement power; it can only urge, suggest, or direct officials to take actions. If an official ignores the request, the ethics office has no recourse.

Still, U.S. law bans federal officials from working “personally and substantially” on any issues in which they or their immediate family members have a financial stake.

Regulations require those officials to avoid “even an appearance of a conflict of interest,” the WSJ noted.

Those regulations are routinely ignored, the WSJ found.

According to the WSJ’s investigation, Paul Golan, who managed two department research labs, made 130 trades in 18 companies the ethics office said was related to his work, including Boeing, Caterpillar, and Chevron, and he continued trading in companies directly involved in his labs’ work after the ethics office advised him of the conflict. 

In one example the WSJ cited, Golan actively traded Chevron shares while one of his labs was developing technology that could help oil companies avoid costly accidents.

He traded Chevron shares 18 times in two years, usually in blocks valued between $15,000 and $100,000, and continued the trades even after the ethics office had sent him a letter.

Golan had no comment when contacted by the WSJ.

David Meyer, who worked on issues related to improving the electric grid, disclosed buying and selling shares of energy and solar companies. During his tenure at the department, his disclosure forms listed more than 450 trades the department ethics office said were related to his work.

He reported investments in Sunpower Corp., a solar firm that later received $6.65 million in funding from the department; and 44 trades of shares and options in Blink Charging, which makes electric vehicle charging hardware. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November 2021, sets aside $5 billion to fund EV charging stations.

Contacted by the WSJ, Meyer said the trades were made without his knowledge by his wife, a professional day trader who makes buy-and-sell decisions based on technical analysis of market moves.

She “scrupulously refrained” from trading in companies whose business was “clearly grid-related,” but it was not always possible to discern whether a company dealt in “electricity-related products or services,” he added.

Department ethics officers never pursued actions beyond their advisory letters and he never shared those letters with his wife, he said.

Federal law leaves agencies to decide their own ethics policies.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration forbids officials from investing in firms included in the agency’s list of “significantly regulated” companies. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission disallows officials from investing in any company the SEC is investigating, even if the official has no involvement in the probe.

“How many public resources do we want to spend on compliance?,” Donna Nagy, associate dean at the University of Indiana School of Law, asked in a WSJ interview.

“At the end of the day, you’re still having the public question the decision-making of federal officials and still questioning whether the individuals are engaged in self-interested decision-making.”

With good reason: in October 2022, the WSJ published a major exposé showing that in 2020 and 2021, hundreds of officials across several federal agencies were simultaneously preparing for the COVID War and investing in companies that would benefit from their actions.

We detailed the WSJ’s findings in “Special Report: Government Officials Get Richer on the Job While Ethics Offices Sit and Watch” (25 Oct 2022).

Those investigations are apart from recent ethical scandals at the U.S. Federal Reserve, in which top officials were reporting trades in market securities while setting policy that would change interest rates.

We explored those lapses in:

● “Bankster Bandits Get Richer Playing the Inside Track” (14 Sep 2021)

● “Fed’s Bankster Bandits Get Free Ride” (22 Sep 2022)

● “Another Fed Bankster Caught Violating Financial Disclosure Rules”(18 Oct 2022).

TRENDPOST: The temptation to enrich oneself as a “public servant” routinely seduces many who work in government.

Obviously, ethics offices and guidelines in too many federal agencies are either window dressing or dogs with no teeth.

The entire structure of federal ethics guidelines and enforcement mechanisms needs to be redesigned from the ground up.

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