Revolving doors

On Capitol Hill, the door swings both way

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013 

For years, Stephen Sayle worked as a lobbyist for oil, gas and chemical interests, helping them to secure the best deals possible on Capitol Hill. To critics, he still works for these industries — but now he’s on the payroll of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a political maneuver known as the “reverse revolving door,” Sayle has left his job as CEO of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies LLC and landed as majority staff director of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy. The committee, under Republican leadership, devotes much of its time to attacking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its efforts to regulate oil, gas and chemical companies.

In the past few years, according to federal disclosure records, Sayle has lobbied for no less than six such businesses, among them: Chevron Corp., Calpine Corp., National Grid plc, Tenaska Energy, ITC Holdings and the Electric Power Supply Association. Previously, he represented the chemical industry’s main lobby group, the American Chemistry Council. Sayle was considered good at his job. Last year, he was named one of Capitol Hill’s top lobbyists by The Hill newspaper.

Can a lobbyist shift his outlook from protecting business interests to protecting the nation’s interest so quickly? Former Democratic Rep. Bradley Miller of North Carolina doesn’t think so.

“It’s undoubtedly true that the Republicans on the subcommittee are very, very sympathetic to the views of the energy industry,” wrote Miller in an email. “It still would be nice just for the sake of appearances to pretend that they think the public interest and the energy industry’s interests might not always be identical.”

The revolving door between government and industry is not new. Lawmakers and their congressional aides, political appointees and mid-level agency staffers have long traded their public-sector jobs for more lucrative private-sector posts. And for many reasons, some of the spinners, like Stephen Sayle, dip back in to public office.

But at a time when EPA is under fire from the Republican House, and enjoys only sporadic support from the Democratic Senate and the White House, the revolving door can further thwart the agency's mission.

“When people leave EPA for industry, they take with them valuable inside knowledge that their new companies, or clients, can use against the agency,” said Dr. Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA scientist who directs the program on reproductive health and the environment at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. “This happens in both scientific research and the regulatory arena, and it weakens EPA's ability to do its job. And when they come back to the agency, after working in industry, it's reasonable to question where their loyalties lie,’’ she said.

Consider Scott Fulton. After 22 years at the EPA, including more than four as general counsel, Fulton joined one of the agency’s legal nemeses, Beveridge & Diamond, in March 2013. A top environmental law firm known for litigation over rulemaking, permits, enforcement, hazardous waste, toxic substances and other issues central to environmental integrity, Beveridge & Diamond employs a phalanx of former EPA officials in the service of corporate clients.

The firm also lobbies, and in 2013 worked for the American Chemistry Council and Halliburton Energy Services in their efforts to weaken a proposed revision of the Toxic Substances Control Act. The firm also worked for Shell Oil on federal outer continental shelf lease extensions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks the impact of money and lobbying on elections and public policy.

A notice on Beveridge & Diamond’s website makes its business-friendly orientation clear: “Our litigators partner with the firm’s and our client’s environmental lawyers and experts to match and master the government’s litigation team….Our rule-making litigation efforts often begin during the comment period on proposed regulations because the comments become an essential part of the evidence in the administrative record to convince the reviewing court that the regulation is arbitrary and capricious.”

The firm’s press release touting Fulton’s hire noted, “Mr. Fulton provides counseling and strategic advice on domestic regulatory matters, international environmental regulation and sustainability.”

As a Senate-confirmed EPA employee, Fulton signed the Obama Adminstration’s ethics pledge, which prevents him from representing anyone before EPA for two years. As a lawyer, he is also under rules of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, which prevent him from switching sides on a legal case.

In an interview, Fulton said he believes the rules are fair.

“I can’t sign letters. I can’t have my name used,” Fulton said. “I can’t appear at meetings, representing anyone to the agency, for most purposes.”

Although Fulton ran the EPA’s major legal office, if he was not personally working on a specific case, he is permitted to advise Beveridge & Diamond about it — as long as he does not personally contact or appear before the EPA.

“Scott Fulton, was my general counsel,” said Justina Fugh, EPA’s senior counsel for ethics. “He went to my wedding. Scott went to a law firm, and he, on a regular basis now, writes to me and says, ‘Here’s a case. Was it something I worked on personally and substantially?' ’’

Fulton, according to Fugh, became a nonequity-sharing partner at first, a status that helps him avoid violating the law that bars him from collecting money from cases that the EPA was involved in while he ran their law shop.

“I can offer my opinion, is this strong case for the government, what are the kinds of issues it presents. What kind of strategies might be deployed to try to product an outcome favorable to the client?” Fulton said.

"The regulatory process is overwhelmed by previous employees who know how to delay and undermine the decision-making process."

–Jay Feldman
Director
Beyond Pesticides

Is this much of a distinction? Political observers say no.

Fulton defends his move. “People are not switching sides when they apply their perspective and expertise base to other pursuits.  Our system is made more resilient through the cross-pollination of ideas," he said.

Regulators are not the only employees who spin through the revolving door between government and industry. Scientists also do, raising similar questions about conflicts of interest, dual loyalty and inside knowledge. Todd Stedeford, for example, was an EPA scientist from 2004 to 2007, then moved to Albermarle Corp., which was one of the three major flame retardant companies in the U.S. While there, according to news reports, he championed the industry’s assertions that these chemicals were safe — in the face of mounting evidence that they are not. In 2011, he returned to EPA, where he became chief of the existing chemicals branch.  

Catherine C. Milbourn, a spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in an email, “Dr. Todd Stedeford is not involved in any way with the day-to-day operations, management or implementation of any ongoing or planned activities related to the review of risk assessment development for brominated flame retardant chemicals.”

Milbourn also said that Stedeford recused himself indefinitely from working on any issues that relate to Albermarle — voluntarily going beyond the one-year period in which employees must not participate in matters involving their former employers, without agency authorization. But what does his willingness to serve industry needs so passionately say about his viewpoint as a scientist or his commitment to public health?

Stedeford declined comment.

Another recent EPA departure is Douglas Wolf, who left his post at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development to become a senior technical leader at Syngenta, the Swiss chemical company which makes pesticides and seeds.

At the agency, Wolf worked in the office of research and development. His scientific interests are toxicology risk assessment. He also declined comment.

Miller, who served as the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment before it was divided into separate panels, said he is also concerned about congressional staffers who, while serving in government jobs, set their sights on their next, higher-paying post.

“The problem with the revolving door is that members and staffers sometimes start work for their potential future employers when they’re still supposed to be doing the people’s business,” he said. “Even if they’re not consciously betraying the public interest to promote their own future employment prospects, it’s got to be in the back of their mind. It won’t be hard for Sayle to figure out who his potential future employers are — they’re almost certainly his past employers.”

Miller has a point. Sayle declined to comment, as did a spokesman for science committee chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). But this is not Sayle’s first turn through the revolving door. The profile listed on his LinkedIn page notes his early career: a few years serving on the staff of Rep. Joe Barton (R- Texas), followed by several years as counsel to Republican members of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Public records note what appears to be a lobbying job between his positions with Barton and the Energy and Commerce committee.)

From there, Sayle deployed to Dutko Worldwide, a lobby firm, where his portfolio included the American Chemistry Council, and the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (which has since become the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers), as well as other businesses. From Dutko, according to his LinkedIn profile, Sayle moved to Dow Lohnes Government Strategies. Sayle was generous to the GOP, with more than 97 percent of his total $66,822 in campaign contributions, reported through 2012, going to Republican candidates, according to Influence Explorer, a project of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington research group devoted to government transparency.

And according to federal disclosure reports, Sayle has lobbied on a wide range of energy-related issues, including hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” and climate change.  

The reverse revolving door is less common than the regular revolving door, when people move from government to industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The group’s website lists dozens of former lobbyists now ensconced in offices of lawmakers of both parties.

It makes sense for lawmakers, who can strengthen their ties to potential industry donors by bringing in one of their own. It is also true that private-sector expertise can be valuable for lawmakers and agency officials.

A. Todd Johnston is another employee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and is a former National Mining Association director of air quality. He did a stint in the Senate before becoming staff director of the Subcommittee on the Environment. Gary Andres, staff director of the Energy and Commerce Committee, was a longtime lobbyist at Dutko Worldwide, where he represented the National Ground Water Association, General Motors, Union Pacific Corp. and Google, among other businesses. Neither Johnston nor Andres returned calls seeking comment.

Viveca Novak, the editorial and communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, said Sayle “brings a certain expertise in energy and some of the other industries he’s had clients from, which is the plus side for the committee in getting someone like him.”

But, she added, “The downside is that it seems like it would be very hard for him to take an even-handed approach to a lot of the issues that will be before the committee. Clearly he can’t recuse himself from these issues because they are central to the committee’s work.”

Ethics rules governing the reverse revolving door are vague. Robert Kelner, chair of Covington & Burling’s election and political law practice group, who has also worked with GOP political committees, said, “It’s fair to say that the reverse revolving door rules are fairly relaxed, certainly compared to the usual revolving door rules for people leaving the Hill.

“There are no explicit rules, it’s more, there are some rules you can infer from other rules. First, of all, there are Bar [Association] rules, so if the lobbyist is coming from a law firm, then the lobbyist, depending on which bar or bars they are a member of, may be under some restrictions working on the same matters they worked on before.”

Kelner thinks the rules are fine the way they are. “While I can understand the point of view that would suggest we need stricter rules for lobbyists going to the Hill, I also think that Washington suffers from what I like to call ethics sclerosis, an over-abundance of ethics rules to the extent that it’s very difficult for anyone to comply,” he said.

Not everyone is bothered by those who spin through the revolving door. John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “ I generally don’t have concerns about the practice … It’s fairly commonplace in the environmental law and policy realm, and that’s because of the invaluable experience from working at a place like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Justice Department.

“I know very many fine attorneys that spent much or most of their careers at EPA or the Justice Department or Capitol Hill and decided for whatever personal or professional reason to work in the private sector," he said. "The problem comes when someone works at government and continues to represent private interests and corporate interests while causing the public good and public health to suffer.”

Jay Feldman, longtime director of Beyond Pesticides, which advocates a toxics-free environment, is more concerned about the effect on public health.

“It affects the government’s ability to do its job adequately, given that the individuals we depend on, for sound decision-making, are in a revolving door where they see the future promise of a lucrative career serving those they were previously regulating … The regulatory process is overwhelmed by previous employees who know how to delay and undermine the decision-making process.”

Revolving doors

Stories in this investigation

About the author

Sheila Kaplan