Biden admin official hit with ethics complaint for role in federal oil leasing pause

By | September 13, 2022

FIRST ON FOX: A federal watchdog group filed an ethics complaint Tuesday against Laura Daniel-Davis, a senior Interior Department (DOI) official, for potentially working on behalf of her former employer’s interests.

The group Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) accused Daniel-Davis, the DOI’s current principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, of violating federal conflict of interest regulations and the Biden administration’s ethics pledge for her activity related to oil and gas leasing in Alaska, according to the complaint first obtained by Fox News Digital.

The complaint alleged that Daniel-Davis’ prior role as the chief of policy and advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), a major environmental organization, influenced her decision to implement the DOI’s oil and gas leasing pause in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in the northern region of Alaska. The NWF joined an August 2020 lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s decision to award the ANWR leases while Daniel-Davis was still with the group.

“At minimum, this connection creates a reasonable appearance of impropriety,” the PPT complaint stated. “At worst, it suggests that Ms. Daniel-Davis may have participated personally and substantially in a particular matter in which her former employer was an interested party.”

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“This warrants immediate investigation to determine whether Ms. Daniel-Davis improperly participated in a particular matter involving her former employer,” it continued.

On June 1, 2021 — less than a year after NWF joined the lawsuit challenging the ANWR leases and months after Daniel-Davis joined the administration — Interior Secretary Deb Haaland ordered a pause on all oil and gas leases throughout the refuge. The order gave implementation authority to the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, a vacant position Daniel-Davis has been nominated for, and the principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Daniel-Davis’ current position.

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That same day, Daniel-Davis issued letters to lessees prohibiting lease operations and suspending lease rentals in ANWR in accordance with the authority Haaland gave her.

The PPT’s complaint Tuesday noted that Daniel-Davis’ letters mirrored the NWF’s legal complaint filed in August 2020. Both concluded that the Trump administration hadn’t conducted the proper environmental analyses of the ANWR leases.

“the circumstances could cause a reasonable person to question Ms. Daniel-Davis’ impartiality on this matter,” PPT continued in its complaint. “The Department took substantially similar action to the relief requested by Ms. Daniel-Davis’ former employer.” 

“Ms. Daniel-Davis was a senior employee of the National Wildlife Federation at the time it filed the complaint seeking to invalidate the lease sales and enjoin seismic activity from proceeding,” it added. “And Ms. Daniel-Davis cited arguments that were similar to those advanced by her former employer in the lease suspension letters.”

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In addition, a records request obtained by PPT showed that Daniel-Davis organized an internal DOI meeting about “arctic litigation” on May 10, 2021, shortly before Haaland’s order. The meeting “raises questions” about Daniel-Davis’ role in discussions related to the ANWR leases, according to the watchdog group.

NWF and the other environmental organizations involved in the August 2020 lawsuit, meanwhile, have agreed to halt their litigation pending DOI’s revised decision on the ANWR leases which is expected to be issued in November. Daniel-Davis, who in 2020 said the U.S. must “quickly leverage every means possible to reduce carbon emissions,” is leading the review.

“Oil and gas leasing in ANWR is such a hot-button issue, it would make sense for DOI to avoid anything that could create even a whiff of impropriety,” PPT Director Michael Chamberlain told FOX News Digital. “But ethics considerations don’t appear to have played a part in DOI’s calculus.”

“Despite the Biden Administration’s constant assertions that it is the most ethical in history, this is not the first – or second or third – incident Protect the Public’s Trust has uncovered at Secretary Haaland’s Department of the Interior in which the public could question officials’ adherence to their ethics obligations,” he added. “Not unrelated, the American public’s trust in its government continues its rapid descent.”

PPT filed the complaint Tuesday with DOI Inspector General Mark Greenblatt, DOI ethics official Heather Gottry and Office of Government Ethic Director Emory Rounds. PPT requested that the officials initiate an investigation into the allegations.

In December, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, similarly asked Greenblatt to investigate Daniel-Davis and three other DOI officials over potential conflicts of interest.

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“These individuals have made key decisions to overturn, review, and delay resource development projects and land management plans in Alaska that they and their former employers or clients were actively opposing prior to their appointments,” Sullivan wrote to Greenblatt. 

“I ask that you supply all relevant information requested below so we may have a full understanding of these appointees’ apparent and likely conflicts of interest,” he continued. “I further ask that your office consider opening an ethics investigation into the work of these appointees, as required by law.”

The Interior Department didn’t immediately return a request for comment.