Former officials cash in on their reputations

Reuters

Then President George W. Bush and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman visit Safe Harbor Hydroelectric Dam in Conestoga, PA, May 18, 2001.

Article Highlights

  • They say you can't put a price on your reputation. But former public officials are proving otherwise.

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  • If the strength of an argument rests mostly on who's making it, then it would seem relevant that Whitman and her clients stand to profit off the policies she's advocating.

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  • Just because consultants or their clients stand to profit from a policy doesn't mean their argument is invalid.

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They say you can't put a price on your reputation. But former public officials are proving otherwise.

Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christie Todd Whitman signed a recent New York Times op-ed along with three other Republican former administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency. The op-ed argued that Obama's climate action "would deliver real progress."

The article praises Obama for using "his executive powers to require reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the nation's power plants ..." The writers also endorsed Obama unilaterally acting to "spur increased investment in clean energy technology."
 
The op-ed doesn't offer much in the way of evidence or argument. It does, however, lean heavily on their reputations: "As administrators of the E.P.A. under Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush, we held fast to common-sense conservative principles ..."

If the strength of an argument rests mostly on who's making it, then it would seem relevant that Whitman and her clients stand to profit off the policies she's advocating.

Whitman runs the Whitman Strategy Group, with offices in Princeton and on K Street, specializing in energy and environment matters. When WSG was registered as a lobbying firm in recent years, its clients included solar energy companies. Today, the firm is not registered, but WSG's website explains that it helps companies "navigate through the maze of ever-changing laws and regulations, governmental red tape and business bureaucracies."

Most relevant to the op-ed, WSG's website describes one unnamed client as "a company that was considering investing in an air quality consulting firm." Whitman's firm "prepared a detailed summary of key federal policy and regulatory trends and observations related to clean air, including various scenarios dependent upon Presidential and Congressional election results, with a horizon of 5 years."

In the end, WSG's "forecasting report played a significant part in the company's decision to move forward and purchase the air quality consulting firm."

In other words, Whitman's client wanted to enter a business whose profit depends on federal regulation of greenhouse gasses. Her firm "forecast[ed]" such regulations, thus convincing her client to enter the business - and on the pages of the New York Times, she is advocating these very same regulations.

Yet her op-ed described her merely as a "former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency."

It also seems relevant that Whitman is co-chairwoman of a nuclear-energy lobby group called CASEnergy. Nuclear companies would benefit from Obama's restrictions on greenhouse gases.

Whitman disclosed this nuclear-industry tie in a recent Politico op-ed warning that "there could be significant ramifications from a long-term run on natural gas use for electricity."

But even here, she's cashing in on her reputation. Who would care about a pro-nuclear op-ed by the average nuclear-industry lobbyist?

Whitman is only one example. The Aug. 12 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an op-ed co-bylined by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. It reads a lot like Whitman's piece: "Fortunately, President Barack Obama's climate plan sets a path forward for Pennsylvania and the rest of the country to finally start doing something about it in a clear, common-sense and mutually beneficial way."

The op-ed discloses that Rendell sits on the board of directors of wind-power company OwnEnergy. Rendell's coauthor in the piece is OwnEnergy CEO Jacob Susman. Now you see one reason energy companies want ex-politicians on their payroll - Whitman and Rendell can get a primetime TV spot, a New York Times op-ed or a meeting with policymakers that most CEOs can only dream about.

Green energy is replete with these examples, but the fossil-fuel sector isn't innocent. Rendell in March published a New York Daily News op-ed championing oil and gas fracking, which many environmentalists oppose. A few days later, the nonprofit journalism outfit Pro Publica reported a detail Rendell's op-ed had omitted: "Since stepping down as governor in 2011, he has worked as a paid consultant to a private equity firm with investments in the natural gas industry."

Just because consultants or their clients stand to profit from a policy doesn't mean their argument is invalid. But when their argument rests on the reputations of former officials like Whitman or Rendell, then the financial stakes should be made clear so the policy can be judged on its merits.

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