The top attorney in President Trump’s environmental policy shop has been allowed to keep family-owned stocks in the energy sector that could benefit from the administration’s deregulatory push.
Viktoria Seale is the acting general counsel at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Brought on as the office’s deputy general counsel, Seale sought — and was given — a waiver, obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act, so she could participate in issues before CEQ that affect energy holdings in her spouse’s family trust.
At CEQ, Seale would be required to participate in "general applicability" matters such as rulemaking, policy shaping and legal advice that could apply to energy companies in the energy sector so "that the financial interests of one of these organizations is affected," according to the document, signed by Howard Sun, a legal adviser at CEQ, and dated Oct. 16.
"Your conflicting particular matters are matters of sensitivity. Topics like energy and environmental regulation are particularly delicate. I have taken this into consideration," Sun said.
Seale needed the waiver because, under ethics law, executive branch employees are prohibited from participating in government actions that could benefit their or their family members’ financial interests.
Sun was delegated the authority to grant the waiver as CEQ’s alternate ethics official, given that Seale was the office’s original ethics official.
Nevertheless, Sun determined that Seale’s energy interests were minor enough that selling off the energy stocks was not warranted.
"I determine that your aforementioned disqualifying financial interests are not so substantial as to be deemed likely to affect the integrity of your services, and issue this waiver," Sun said.
The trust holds eight energy stocks: General Electric, Atmos Energy Corp., Enterprise Products Partners LP, Exxon Mobil Corp., Genesis Energy LP, Kinder Morgan Inc., Plains All American Pipeline LP and 3M Co.
Those stocks make up less than 18 percent, or $540,000, of the trust’s total value, estimated to be $3 million, according to the waiver. Seale’s spouse is one of the trust’s six beneficiaries and received quarterly distributions of $4,700 on average during the past two years.
Those distributions represented 8.8 percent of Seale and her spouse’s combined income last year. In addition, her spouse’s interest in the trust’s energy holdings are 11 percent of Seale and her spouse’s net investment portfolio.
Divesture of those holdings, however, is "not practicable," considering Seale and her spouse do not control the trust. Neither is a grantor or trustee for the trust or has control over its distributions.
‘Your services are necessary’
Also, Seale’s skills are needed at CEQ. At the time the waiver was granted, she was one of two non-detailed attorneys at the office and was its "most senior attorney," according to the document. Considering those factors, a recusal for issues conflicting with the energy stocks was "not practicable in the long term."
"Your services are necessary in the conflicting particular matters," Sun said.
A Trump administration official told E&E News there are now three non-detailed attorneys at CEQ, and Seale remains its acting general counsel.
Seale’s waiver is contingent on her spouse’s status as one of the trust’s six beneficiaries and as long as the trust’s energy stocks do not exceed 15 percent of Seale and her spouse’s new investment portfolio. If either of those conditions changes, Seale is required to obtain "a written re-evaluation" of the waiver.
The administration official said no other political appointees at CEQ have been given waivers similar to Seale’s. In addition, no Trump appointees at the White House environmental office had been given waivers to the president’s ethics pledge.
Political appointees elsewhere in the administration have gotten waivers to Trump’s ethics pledge, including top U.S. EPA officials such as Erik Baptist and Dennis Lee Forsgren (Greenwire, Oct. 25). Nancy Beck, a senior staffer in the agency’s chemicals office, didn’t have to sign the pledge since she was not considered a political appointee and was hired in an "administratively determined" position (Greenwire, Aug. 8).
Seale joined CEQ this June from the House Small Business Committee, where she was senior counsel. She also worked at the Small Business Administration during the George W. Bush administration, and before that at the Heritage Foundation (Climatewire, June 22).
Off to a slow start under the Trump administration, CEQ has begun to staff up. The office now has 29 staffers, including 15 full-time employees; 13 full- or part-time other government employees, including aides from various federal agencies; and one intern, according to the administration official.
"CEQ is building a well-qualified, professional team and anticipates hiring additional staff going forward," said the administration official.
Nevertheless, CEQ is still waiting for its chairwoman, Kathleen Hartnett White, who Trump nominated for the top job at the White House environmental office in October. White has run into opposition from Democrats and has not received a Senate confirmation vote yet.