By Itai Vardi
April 14, 2018 - A high-ranking Department of Energy official involved in promoting the Trump administration’s coal-boosting agenda failed to disclose a financial stake in a coal company when nominated to his position.
Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steve Winberg, who has been in office since November, informed government ethics officials in February that he held a stock option in his previous employer, CONSOL Energy, which he had not originally disclosed.
It took another month for him to finally report that he had forfeited the stock.
The Senate confirmed Winberg, who previously served as vice president for research and development at CONSOL from 2002 until his retirement in 2014, on Nov. 2. In his ethics agreement, he vowed to divest his fossil fuel stocks ? including shares in CONSOL ? within 90 days of his confirmation. While he did disclose a variety of CONSOL stocks, it wasn’t until Feb. 2 ? a day after that deadline to divest had passed ? that Winberg told officials in the Office of Government Ethics that CONSOL had notified him that he still held a deferred stock option, payable to him this May.
“I understand that ownership of these additional CONSOL Energy, Inc. shares regrettably means I am not in compliance with my ethics agreement,” Winberg wrote to the ethics office in the letter dated Feb. 7, adding that the stock is valued at “considerably less than $5,000.”
But Shaylyn Hynes, a Department of Energy spokeswoman, said Winberg noticed the oversight and informed ethics officials about the remaining payment of CONSOL shares, and that the value of those shares was actually less than $3,000.
“In early 2007, Mr. Winberg elected to defer his 2006 shares until he retired from CONSOL which was in 2014,” Hynes told HuffPost in an email. Hynes said Winberg had simply misread his portfolio, but she did not explain the discrepancy between the two accounts of how the stock option was first discovered ? that is, whether CONSOL informed Winberg or if he realized the oversight on his own.
In the paperwork he submitted to ethics officials in February, Winberg also disclosed that he had not sold the CONSOL stock in his 401(k) account until Feb. 7, which was six days after the divestment deadline. Winberg said he did not realize he had to divest all of his fossil fuel stocks by Feb. 1, believing he had 90 days from the day he was sworn in, Nov. 22, not from his confirmation. But the ethics agreement clearly states that the divestment must happen within 90 days of confirmation.
In response to these revelations, ethics officials required Winberg to fill out a new financial disclosure and sign a new ethics agreement. On March 12, more than a month after reporting the stock discovery, Winberg forfeited his right to the CONSOL payment.
In the interim, Winberg continued to promote coal energy. He gave a talk at an energy conference in Houston in early March in which he revealed that the Department of Energy is pursuing designs for smaller coal plants to compete on what he described as an “evolving” grid where natural gas plants and wind and solar are dominating new installations. The initiative is part of the department’s broader policy push under Energy Secretary Rick Perry to rejuvenate the coal industry.
Virginia Canter, executive branch ethics counsel at the government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said Winberg’s retention of CONSOL stock while advocating for coal is a clear conflict of interest.
“Mr. Winberg’s failure to properly identify all his financial holdings in CONSOL at the outset of his nomination resulted in ethics compliance issues,” she said. “His handling of the matter raises additional questions about why he waited until March 12 to forfeit the deferred stock holdings rather than forfeit them immediately.”
DOE’s Hynes contested the idea the stock presented a conflict of interest because Winberg was not making decisions that directly affected CONSOL. “Upon appointment as the Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, Mr. Winberg was recused from participating in matters that affecting the financial interests of CONSOL until he was divested of the stock,” she said.
CONSOL Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
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