President Obama’s nominee to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is coordinating his campaign with two lobbyists for energy companies, a Democratic strategy firm and several other green-technology strategists, according to emails that show an unprecedented effort to gain a position on the obscure board.
Ron Binz, the former head of Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission, has become an unlikely nomination battleground in the Senate, where commissioners for FERC, a regulatory agency that oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, oil and gas, are usually accepted without any problems.
Mr. Binz’s opponents say the lobbying effort is evidence that environmentalists are trying to expand Mr. Obama’s global-warming agenda to FERC, a quasi-judicial independent agency that had until recently had shied away from the contentious debate.
The new emails, which The Washington Times obtained from a pressure group that requested them under federal open-records laws, indicted that FERC employees worked closely with lobbyists, strategists and an employee of the Energy Foundation, a non-profit that is supposed to be limited in what lobbying it is allowed to do.
The coordination has become an issue because it raises questions about who, exactly, is backing Mr. Binz and why lobbyists are involved.
“At their minimum, FERC’s own records show that he is burdened by the appearance of a very difficult to explain away conflict of interest,” said Chris Horner, who requested the emails for the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic. “Who were the clients, and why? What do they want?”
Mr. Binz’s nomination will go through the Senate Energy Committee, and has already proved to be contentious, with Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, saying he is concerned, and a number of Republicans are saying they are not sold.
All of that signals a potentially bruising fight, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the panel’s ranking Republican, said in a statement to The Times that the new emails add to troubling questions.
“We just learned about the emails now. They are concerning and must be taken seriously,” she said. “FERC has said there will be another release of emails next week. We need to see what are in those emails.”
Mr. Binz’s backers say he’ll be a fair-minded regulator in line with previous commissioner, while his opponents say he will bring a “radical” agenda and a prickly personality to the agency.
Mr. Binz declined to comment to The Times, saying in a brief email that he has turned down all interviews since being nominated in June.
Soon after that nomination, the emails show he began to coordinate with what he called his “team”: Michael Meehan, a longtime Democratic operative who now runs VennSquared public relations firm; Kai Anderson and Chris Miller, lobbyists at different firms who used to be staffers for Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, now the top Democrat in the chamber; and Carrie Doyle, a former Obama campaign operative who is now vice president of public engagement for the Energy Foundation.
According to the emails, Mr. Binz had the lobbyists and Mr. Meehan vet his official biography that he submitted to the Senate, and the emails show Mr. Binz coordinated with his team, with a White House staffer, and with a number of FERC employees on strategy meetings.
“Please look this over quickly TODAY and give me any feedback,” Mr. Binz tells the lobbyists and Mr. Meehan in one email. A number of the other emails deal with coordinating meetings with staffers on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Binz’s association with Mr. Meehan is noteworthy because two media outlets, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and E&E, an environment and energy publication, both have said Mr. Binz and VennSquared denied coordinating with each other.
E&E reported on July 23 that VennSquared Senior Vice President Sarah Elliott said Mr. Binz was not aware VennSquared had been hired to support his nomination and that he wasn’t involved in selecting the firm. The Wall Street Journal said in its Aug. 25 editorial that both Mr. Binz and VennSquared “deny coordinating with one another.”
But Mr. Meehan told The Times he never spoke with the Wall Street Journal, and said his colleague, who did speak to E&E, had only indicated that Mr. Binz didn’t know before he was nominated that VennSquared had been hired.
“I wouldn’t have denied coordinating with him — I talked to the guy,” Mr. Meehan said.
Mr. Meehan said as a public relations firm, his chief job has been to put reporters in touch with people to defend Mr. Binz’s nomination — particularly since Mr. Binz isn’t doing interviews himself while he’s pending before the Senate.
Mr. Meehan also said he was thrilled to get the call from his client asking that he work on the nomination, saying he was happy to know that his side of the issue was willing to take up this fight.
“I was actually heartened,” he said.
Lobbyists and strategists
The Green Tech Action Fund, which is affiliated with the Energy Foundation, is reportedly paying for VennSquared to get involved. The Energy Foundation is registered as a 501(c )(3) non-profit, which limits the lobbying it can do. But an Energy Foundation employee, Ms. Doyle, is copied on a number of the 26 pages of emails The Times saw.
Ms. Doyle forwarded a request for comment to Jenny Coyle, a spokeswoman for the Energy Foundation, who said the Energy Foundation donates about 1 percent of its budget each year to the Green Tech Action Fund, and GTAF engages in lobbying. In 2011, the Energy Foundation reported spending $1 million of its $103 million in expenditures on lobbying.
Ms. Coyle said Ms. Doyle is an Energy Foundation employee but “occasionally bills a small portion of her time to GTAF. This is a common practice between c3s and their affiliated c4s.” Ms. Coyle said Ms. Doyle didn’t respond to any of the emails nor did she take part in meetings at FERC.
Mr. Binz is also being aided by two registered lobbyists, both of whom used to work for Mr. Reid.
One of the two lobbyists on the emails, Mr. Anderson, has a list of 22 client firms this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ database. It includes Noble Energy, Ormat Nevada and LS Power.
Mr. Anderson said he isn’t being paid to shepherd Mr. Binz, who he said was a friend, through the nomination process and said he doesn’t have any business before FERC that would be tainted.
“It is entirely appropriate to help a friend navigate the labyrinthine Senate confirmation process, and I am happy to lend my support,” said Mr. Anderson, who is executive vice president of Cassidy & Associates. “I am by no means a FERC expert and have no business matters before FERC.”
The other lobbyist, Chris Miller, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. His client list is much smaller: United Technologies and Advanced Engine Systems Institute.
FERC employees’ role
A number of FERC employees were also on the emails, including Chris Murray, who arranged one of the in-person and online meetings that included VennSquared, the two lobbyists and Mr. Binz.
In one July 19 email with Mr. Murray that only involved the two lobbyists and Mr. Meehan’s firm, but not Mr. Binz, they arranged a phone meeting to talk about the press coverage the nomination was getting.
Lobbying is not allowed for FERC employees. Charles Beamon, the designated agency ethics officer at FERC, said he didn’t know what was discussed at the meetings, but said he’d be surprised if his agency’s employees crossed any lines into lobbying.
“Our people are well-trained, well-experienced. They would know better than to lobby,” Mr. Beamon said.
The Wall Street Journal has editorialized against Mr. Binz, while liberal groups have rallied around him — as have former FERC commissioners of both parties, who wrote a reply to the Journal.
“Mr. Binz has an impressive 34-year career in energy policy. If the Senate confirms him, we think he will be a fair and impartial judge and further the public interest within the FERC’s authority,” the former commissioners said.
They said that FERC not only acts in its judicial role, but also issues rules, which amounts to legislating, which makes Mr. Binz’s experience helpful.
Benjamin Cole, communications director at the Institute for Energy Research, an industry-funded think tank that is part of a campaign to stop Mr. Obama’s global warming agenda from reaching FERC, said the fight over Mr. Binz has surprised all sides, but said the intense effort to get him confirmed makes sense.
“[FERC] is the only central component of Obama’s climate action plan that he doesn’t have control of from the White House or within his Cabinet,” Mr. Cole said.