This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. EST.
A watchdog group led by a former Trump administration official wants a federal probe into whether a senior Bureau of Land Management official improperly maintained financial ties to ConocoPhillips while the bureau was evaluating a project the company has proposed in Alaska.
Protect the Public’s Trust on Monday filed a formal ethics complaint with the Interior Department’s inspector general requesting an investigation of BLM Deputy Director of Policy and Programs Nada Culver’s financial ties to ConocoPhillips.
The complaint alleges that Culver held onto Conoco bonds she and her husband owned months after she was alerted to sell them by Interior’s ethics office, and about four months after starting work at BLM. Interior’s ethics rules forbid employees “from owning stock or bond investments (including imputed ownership by a spouse) in many companies that hold DOI-granted permits and leases in Federal lands,” including ConocoPhillips.
The ethics complaint — addressed to IG Mark Lee Greenblatt — includes financial documents Culver submitted to the Interior Department showing “that her sale of the Conoco bonds did not occur until August 16, 2021.”
That was “more than 90 days after” she was first advised by the ethics office “of her obligations with respect to prohibited financial interests,” and after she had received interim ethics guidance from the department, the complaint says.
“This may be the most egregious example yet of the considerable disregard for ethics compliance at the Department of the Interior” during the Biden administration, Michael Chamberlain, director of Protect the Public’s Trust, said in a statement.
Protect the Public’s Trust bills itself as nonpartisan, but Chamberlain is a former Trump administration official.
A BLM spokesperson said the bureau could not comment on the ethics complaint.
A spokesperson for the Interior IG’s office said in an emailed statement that “we will review the complaint carefully to determine the appropriate course of action.”
The complaint does not include direct evidence from Protect the Public’s Trust that Culver benefited financially from any actions she took involving oil and gas policy or decisions involving ConocoPhillips.
But it notes that the Interior Department is expected in the coming weeks to issue a final decision on ConocoPhillips’ controversial Willow oil and gas drilling project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that is strongly opposed by environmental groups.
Culver, as BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, testified in April 2021 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on oil and gas policies, and answered questions about the Willow project from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) “without disclosing her interest in Conoco,” the complaint says.
“Ms. Culver’s testimony before the Senate clearly put her in a position where she could affect the marketability or market resale value of the bond through the public’s perception of the economic fortunes of Conoco,” the complaint says.
Protect the Public’s Trust has raised ethical questions with the IG’s office about Culver over the past couple of years.
The group in 2021 filed a complaint with the IG that alleged Culver violated agency ethics rules when she met with a previous employer on potential changes to the agency’s regulation of oil and gas development and climate change (Greenwire, Sept. 2, 2021).
The IG later issued a report that concluded Culver’s June 1, 2021, meeting with officials at the Wilderness Society did violate agency ethics rules. But it also concluded she violated the rules unintentionally and that her actions did not affect bureau policy decisions (Greenwire, Aug. 23, 2022).
Culver at the time was performing the duties of BLM director in the months prior to the Senate’s confirmation of Tracy Stone-Manning as bureau director.
Regardless of whether the IG agrees to conduct an ethics investigation, BLM during Culver’s time at there has been marked by revised policies and rules that have cracked down on oil and gas emissions, including a proposed rule targeting methane from oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
Still, Culver could face blowback from the new Republican majority in the House.
Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), while serving as the committee’s top Republican last year, had asked Greenblatt to audit Interior’s ethics department in a letter citing among other examples the ongoing investigation involving Culver that resulted in last August’s IG report.
Reporter Heather Richards contributed.