Ryan Jackson was a hot commodity throughout scandal and its aftermath at the Trump administration’s EPA.
The former chief of staff entertained job discussions outside EPA several times while he was the top aide to Administrator Andrew Wheeler and his predecessor, Scott Pruitt. Records obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act show Jackson filed five different notifications of negotiations.
The documents underline how a senior political appointee who built up the Trump EPA’s political staff and helped shepherd its regulatory rollbacks was prized by those seeking his services. Most of the names of the "non-federal" entities are redacted in the records, with the agency citing FOIA’s privacy exemption.
Jackson, who left EPA earlier this year to join the National Mining Association, said the forms were filed when job offers caught his attention.
Jackson told E&E News he did not enter job negotiations with five entities while at EPA. "Rather, to ensure complete candor and full disclosure, I reported to EPA career ethics counsel every opportunity to which I gave serious consideration," he said.
Julian Ha, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., an executive search firm, said industry would be interested in an EPA official like Jackson.
"Anyone who is close to the Sun God, to the center of the things, and as the chief of staff, you’re considered close to the administrator, you’re going to be seen as helpful," Ha told E&E News. "Ryan was thought to be someone who was credible because his time outlasted just Pruitt. Presumably, his relationships and his ability to help his client navigate the EPA was still relevant. That brings value."
Jackson contacted EPA’s ethics office in 2018 on March 19 and March 29 to inform them of potential work elsewhere, marking the first instance in the documents of him considering employment outside of EPA, according to one form. Another notification indicates Jackson had a "conversation" regarding a job somewhere else on March 21 that year.
At that time, Pruitt, EPA’s then-administrator, was coming under increasing scrutiny. By the end of that month, his renting of a tony Capitol Hill condo tied to a lobbyist with business before the agency would go public and then scandals came thick and fast.
Several of Pruitt’s top aides would exit EPA soon after. Jackson was considering leaving, too (Greenwire, April 5, 2018). Facing numerous ethics troubles, Pruitt resigned in July 2018, but Jackson stayed on as chief of staff for Wheeler, Pruitt’s deputy who became acting head and was later confirmed as administrator.
Jackson continued to consider job opportunities outside of EPA as Wheeler’s chief of staff.
He filed a notification that on Sept. 26, 2019, job discussions had begun.
Jackson also sent at that time an email, heavily redacted, to Justina Fugh, director of EPA’s ethics office, saying, "I wanted to send this email accompanying the signed form which discusses this situation to demonstrate we did and have been talking about this for a few weeks anticipating filling out the form and that I plan to ensure I fully understand my obligations when you return next week."
A little over a month before he started job talks with NMA, Jackson was the subject of a rare "Seven Day Letter" by EPA’s inspector general who cited his reluctance to cooperate with various investigations. Jackson later sat for a requested interview, and the watchdog office considered the conflict resolved (Greenwire, Jan. 28).
All of Jackson’s notifications included the statement that as long as he was in job negotiations with the named entity, he "will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of this entity."
Jackson said he couldn’t recall how he recused himself from all the issues related to NMA members, but he did offer one example.
"I remember avoiding briefings on New Source Performance Standards because it affected some NMA members. In retrospect, that was probably a matter of general applicability rather than a particular matter, but I would avoid briefings on regulations or specific matters which I believed affected NMA members," Jackson said.
Don Fox, who once was the general counsel and acting director for the Office of Government Ethics, said "the bar is low" when triggering a recusal from job negotiations.
"My gut reaction is that’s a lot," Fox told E&E News when asked about Jackson’s five notifications. "Good he filed the recusals. Hopefully, he filed them timely. Sending a resume or a conversation with someone, that might be enough."
Fox warned government officials negotiating for employment outside their agencies shouldn’t enter so many job talks that they have to step away from much of their public service work.
"You can’t recuse yourself from most of your job. I think that’s a fairness issue, because it’s not fair to taxpayers," Fox said.
‘My honor to help create that team’
Jackson left EPA earlier this year to join NMA, where he is responsible for government and political affairs. Jackson, often the Trump EPA’s entry point for industry and K Street, was familiar with the mining trade group. In December 2017, he emailed a lobbyist with the association a notice of the agency pulling back Obama-era mining rules, saying "per our conversation."
Jackson has registered to lobby for NMA. NMA spokeswoman Ashley Burke said his knowledge and nearly 20 years working in the Senate would serve the trade group’s members well, but the former EPA chief of staff is restricted from lobbying the Trump administration, and "his sole focus will be on congressional advocacy."
Asked whether increasing scrutiny of Pruitt or his dispute with EPA’s IG office led him to consider job talks elsewhere, Jackson said, "The spring of 2018 was challenging. I remain convinced I was correct and straightforward in all my interactions with the inspector general’s office."
He added he wanted to stay at EPA to contribute to the agency, saying he was proud of the team there as well as "regulatory accomplishments" and "improvements to agency operations."
"It was my honor to help create that team, work on and celebrate the U.S. Senate confirmations with some incredible people including my friend of 25 years, Administrator Wheeler, and it was my pleasure to work with all of them for three years," Jackson said.
Mandy Gunasekara, a former senior official in the agency’s air office, returned as chief of staff in March this year after Jackson’s departure.
Jackson’s job hunt also shows how top officials engineer their exits from their agency homes, with talks beginning weeks if not months before they join the private sector. It happened during the Obama administration, too.
Top officials at the Department of the Interior negotiated for jobs elsewhere while still in office (Greenwire, Sept. 6, 2017). Daniel Poneman, once deputy secretary at the Department of Energy, filed nine such notifications for outside employment talks (Greenwire, Nov. 12, 2015).
The revolving door’s spin is expected to pick up for the Trump administration as the end of a president’s first term is a traditional jumping-off point for senior officials. The churn will go even faster if Trump loses his reelection bid and his political appointees are shown the door.
Ha said the president’s political appointees at EPA could see their value to the private sector plateau if Trump is defeated.
"It won’t increase, but depending on their role and if they have some industry sector expertise, they will still have currency," said Ha, adding if they served in "a nonideological way," their calls will be returned.
He also noted, "If there is a second Trump term, they will have more currency."
Some EPA appointees have already left before Election Day.
Matt Leopold, EPA’s former general counsel, resigned from the agency last month. He joined Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, where he works in the global law firm’s environmental practice.
Anne Austin, who leads EPA’s air office, may be leaving soon, too. She has entered job negotiations with Bracewell LLP, another law firm well-versed in energy issues, sources told E&E News (Greenwire, Oct. 20).
Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, said rules are in place to ensure appointees avoid matters affecting their prospective employers. They can also speak to their agencies’ ethics officials. Still, the transition between the public and private sectors worries him.
"A lot of people use government service to gain knowledge and experience and then jump ship for the private sector to cash in," Amey told E&E News. "The faster this revolving door spins, it creates distrust in government."
EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said ethics rules have been followed as top officials looked for jobs outside the agency.
"Consistent with their statutory and regulatory ethics obligations, the identified former EPA employees filed prospective employment notification forms, including recusal statements with the EPA Ethics Office," Block told E&E News. "EPA ethics officials provided one-on-one counseling to each of the individuals regarding applicable recusal obligations."
Other top Trump appointees left EPA prior to Jackson. Job negotiation forms obtained under FOIA show those talks to join the private sector began long before.
Erik Baptist, once senior deputy general counsel at EPA and later a deputy assistant administrator in its chemicals office, filed three forms in January 2019, including for law firm Wiley Rein LLP. He joined the firm in June that year.
Troy Lyons, who led EPA’s congressional relations office, also filed notifications, including for the lobbying firm Massie Partners. He went to the firm in July last year but has since joined the American Exploration & Production Council.
"I followed all guidance from EPA’s career ethics officials," Lyons told E&E News.
Other Trump appointees at EPA filed job negotiations forms noting their private-sector destinations before they left the agency, including Lincoln Ferguson for Continental Resources Inc., Holly Greaves for the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board and John Konkus for AECOM.