Republican Josh Hawley Grills Biden’s Energy Secretary Over Agency Staff Trading Oil Stocks
In a tense exchange that seemed to scramble partisan lines, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) lit into Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm over the staff at her agency trading stocks in companies flagged by ethics officers ― including oil giants.
It was a brief moment of political theater near the end of a two-hour hearing on the Energy Department’s annual budget, an attempt by the right-wing lawmaker to burnish his bona fides as a populist and call out apparent Democratic hypocrisy about fossil fuels.
But the back-and-forth highlighted yet another gap in federal ethics rules at a time when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ dealings with a billionaire donor are stoking fresh debate over how to police corruption, and it showed how Republicans turn progressives’ tactics against Democrats.
From 2017 to 2021, more than 130 staffers collectively reported trades of shares, bonds and options in firms that Energy Department ethics officers flagged as related to their agency work, a Wall Street Journal investigation published in February found.
Limited to officials who file annual disclosures, the analysis represents only a partial picture of a period when the Trump administration was in office but concluded that one-third of the department’s senior officials had received such warnings about personal stock trades.
“I think it’s easier if you don’t own individual stocks,” said Granholm, who said she misunderstood the frequency of filing requirements and missed a few deadlines herself before selling off all her stock a few months after taking office.
But she said the department’s “very rigorous” in-house ethics team allows, for example, staffers working at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which handles atomic weapons, to own shares of companies involved with the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
“If somebody owns an individual stock and they work in the NNSA and that stock happens to relate to something over in the EERE and they’re not involved in it at all, it’s not considered an ethics violation,” Granholm said, using the units’ acronyms.
That sounds like an easy call, but the Journal report detailed trades by high-ranking lab officials whose work ethics officers specifically flagged as related company stock trades.
“All of that has been vetted,” Granholm said.
“And it’s OK?” Hawley said.
“Because they’re not trading in areas where they have influence or are touching,” Granholm continued.
Hawley said it “looks bad” that 28 agency officials owned stock in Exxon Mobil Corp. while 17 owned Chevron Corp. shares and 15 held stock in both.
“It doesn’t involve or influence in any way our actions,” Granholm said.
Hawley balked. “It doesn’t influence their actions? Owning the individual stock doesn’t?”
“Absolutely not,” Granholm replied.
“Then why did you sell yours?” Hawley asked.
“Because I had an ethics agreement with the president of the United States saying I would divest,” she said.
“Well,” Hawley responded, “presumably because he was rightly worried that owning these individual stocks would affect your decisions, don’t you think?”
“It’s different when you’re the head of the department and have a whole agency versus when you’re one part of an agency and you trade a stock that happens to be dealing with a completely different part,” Granholm said.
“We have 100,000 people in the department, a very vast agency, and they’re strewn about the country,” she added before returning to her previous example: “If somebody over in the NNSA buys some stock in Exxon, it doesn’t involve their particular area of influence. That’s the influence part you’re objecting to.”
Hawley returned to the optics: “I guess I don’t understand your position. Your position is you’re not concerned about 130 officials in the Energy Department trading 2,700 shares, including in Chevron, Exxon and others?”
Granholm said she would only be concerned “if our ethics office was concerned.”
“I’ve got a solution: Let’s just ban it,” said Hawley, who previously authored legislation to ban federal lawmakers from trading stocks and embarrass former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for doing so. “Let’s ban it for all executive department officials. Let’s ban it for all members of Congress. How about that?”
Concluding a hearing that spanned everything from funding for nuclear waste storage to hydrogen fuel subsidies to how Republicans’ willingness to drive the federal government into default could harm the U.S. atomic arsenal, Granholm replied: “I would not object to that.”