Interior Department appointee violated ethics pledge, IG finds

Steve Wackowski. Photo via evostc.state.ak.us

An Interior Department appointee violated his ethics pledge by reaching out to an employee at a company he used to work for, according to a new inspector general’s report.

The report published Friday doesn’t include names, but the allegations line up with a complaint an advocacy group lodged against Steve Wackowski, the top Alaska advisor at Interior.

The liberal group Center for American Progress sums it up like this: “Steve Wackowski – a Trump point man for oil drilling in Alaska – broke ethics rules to advance drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

The IG report is more complicated. It says the appointee properly sought and received approval to work on a permit application for a company tangentially related to a company he used to work for. Where he went wrong, the report says, is by contacting and meeting with a scientist at his former firm. 

Generally, political appointees aren’t allowed to contact their former employers for two years. The rule is intended to avoid the impression that a government employee is doing the bidding of his previous bosses, or that the company has special access to the levers of government. 

The report says the appointee thought there was an exception for an exchange of scientific information. There isn’t.

By 2018, Wackowski was evaluating SAExploration’s permit application to conduct seismic testing in ANWR. Wackowski never worked for that company, but he used to work for a small firm called Fairweather Science that supports oil industry work in the Arctic, including polar bear research. The two companies shared a top executive named Jeff Hastings.

The presence of polar bear dens in the Arctic Refuge has been a huge complication for Interior as it prepares to hold an auction for drilling rights.

According to the report, the appointee (presumably Wackowski) emailed a scientist at Company 1 (likely Fairweather) for data concerning “an endangered species.” That would be polar bears, if the previous assumptions are correct. Later, the scientist came to a group meeting in the appointee’s office.

While the IG found those contacts violated the appointee’s ethics pledge, the report also notes there’s no evidence they were used for personal benefit, or to benefit the company.