By SOO RIN KIM, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — President-elect Joe Biden’s energy secretary pick, Jennifer Granholm, has disclosed millions of dollars of investments in corporate and private business interests, including millions in companies linked to the energy industry, as lawmakers prepare to consider her nomination.
The former two-term Michigan governor and her husband, Daniel Mulhern, reported owning from $4.4 million up to $16.8 million in corporate interests and private assets like residential real estate properties, according to her new financial disclosure report released by the Office of Government Ethics on Monday.
Among her biggest assets are $1 million to $5 million worth of stock options she can exercise in Proterra Inc., a company that designs and manufactures zero-emission electric buses and trucks and provides battery-electric buses and charging systems to municipalities in several states, including California, Virginia and Washington state. She also owns a large amount of unvested shares of the company’s stock options, the value of which is not readily ascertainable, according to the report.
Granholm, who sits on the company’s board of directors, wrote in her ethics agreement filed with the disclosure report that she will step down from her position with the company upon her confirmation as energy secretary, and will divest from the vested stock options and forfeit unvested stock options in the company. She also said she’ll recuse herself from matters related to Proterra until one year after her resignation from the company’s board.
Granholm joins a series of Biden nominees who have ties to corporate and private interests, which have raised concerns over potential conflict of interest.
Late last month, secretary of state nominee Tony Blinken reported making more than $1 million from his consulting firm WestExec Advisors, and entered an agreement to divest from the firm, according to his disclosures. Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen reported making more than $7 million in speaking fees from banks and large companies over the last two years, according to her filings.
“One of the things we’re seeing already with the Biden administration is that there are a lot of folks with ties to industries or ties to the private sector of what they are going to oversee or regulate once they move into government,” said Delaney Marsco, ethics legal counsel at Washington-based good government group Campaign Legal Center. “It’s something we’ve definitely been on alert for because the Trump administration has been so horrendous with the revolving door.”
Cabinet members under President Donald Trump have faced a range of conflict-of-interest concerns over the last four years. Trump’s first Energy Secretary Rick Perry joined the Trump administration in 2017 with deep ties to the oil and gas industry, and his successor, Dan Brouillette, had a long history with the automobile industry. Similarly, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, and Trump’s Interior Department is run by former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt.
“I think some of the problems with the Trump administration were, there were a lot of industry ties, a lot of hesitance to divest the financial interests, a lot of lobbyists, former lobbyists coming in,” Marsco said. “I haven’t seen as much of that, particularly with the former lobbyists coming into the [new] administration.”
“But it’s also not good enough for us to just say he’s not going to be as bad as the Trump administration so we can let him off the hook if one or two people have a conflict of interest,” Marsco said. “That’s absolutely not going to be what we’re doing. We are responsible for holding the Biden administration accountable as we hold the Trump administration accountable for any conflict of interest, however big or small. And so I think there will be things that crop up, and we are definitely on the lookout for them.”
“President-elect Biden has said that one of the biggest charges facing his administration is restoring faith in American government,” a Biden transition team official told ABC News. “The incoming administration will continue to adhere to the high ethical standards established during the campaign and carried into the transition, [and] appointees and nominees will be aligned with the values and policy priorities of the president and vice president-elect.
Granholm did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
Granholm’s ties to corporate interests in the energy field are expected to receive particularly close scrutiny during her confirmation, as she would have a hand in carrying out Biden’s proposed climate policy as part of her role. That $2 trillion proposal includes moving the country to carbon-pollution-free power by 2035, and investing heavily in infrastructure and the auto industry.
Her work as the next energy secretary could also lead to potential conflicts with her interests in several other companies tied to the industry, including investments in North Carolina-based electric-power holding company Duke Energy, solar-panel manufacturing company First Solar, Inc., and an investment company that focuses on climate solutions and renewable energy called Hannon Armstrong.
Those shares are owned through a consulting company that Granholm co-owns with her husband, which also manages investments in various other companies like Pfizer, Bank of America and AT&T. Granholm wrote in her ethics agreement that she will divest from her interest in those companies within 90 days after her confirmation, and that Granholm Mulhern Associates, the firm co-owned with her husband, will cease providing consulting and leadership services, while continuing to “manage investments that are held in a corporate brokerage account and a profit-sharing defined contribution plan.” Granholm earned $1 million in salary and “business income” from Granholm Mulhern Associates over the last two years.
She also suggested in her ethics agreement that despite her break from those companies, her husband is expected to continue making corporate investments and consulting through a new firm solely owned by him. She said she will not participate in any matter involving her husband’s clients unless authorized to do so.
Marsco said Granholm’s promise to recuse herself from matters related to her husband’s clients is “boilerplate” language for ethics agreements, and that Granholm is “not going above and beyond what the law is” — though Marsco added that the measures Granholm has taken are “good for the laws we have on the books right now.”
“I think one of the hard things with this is, it’s very hard to know what people are actually participating in, and particularly when you’re very high up, likely you’re more or less participating in everything one way or another,” Marsco said. “A lot of this stuff doesn’t come to light until people file [Freedom of Information Act requests] and get answers back … so it’s hard to know exactly what these folks are doing and whether or not it’s violating the law in real time.”
“We want more proactive disclosure,” Marsco said. “We want better laws on the books that make these kinds of things harder to hide and conceal.”
Over the last two years, Granholm has earned six figures in salary and retainer fees as a political contributor at CNN and at the liberal nonprofit organizations American Bridge Foundation and Media Matters for America, according to the report. She also raked in more than $170,000 from various speaking engagements, which included appearances at events hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Capital Group, and the American Hospital Association. Her salary as an adjunct professor at the University of California Berkeley was roughly $114,000, and she also reported owning between $1 million and $5 million in residential real estate assets in Oakland, California.
The Office of Government Ethics on Saturday also released disclosure forms and ethics agreements from Biden’s transportation secretary nominee, Pete Buttigieg, and Biden’s pick for Veterans Affairs secretary, Denis McDonough.
Buttigieg reported earning between $470,000 and $1.4 million from book deals over the last two years, and also received several lucrative six-figure and five-figure compensation deals through a podcast series and a faculty fellow post at Notre Dame University.
McDonough also received multiple six-figure salaries from several employers, including Notre Dame University, a private foundation called the Markle Foundation, and a consulting firm called Macro Advisory Partners. His consulting clients include companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Apple, MasterCard, PWC Global and Deutsche Telecom.
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