A high-ranking Biden administration official has left the Department of Energy following months of lawsuits and inquiries from Congress about her conflicts of interest.
In December, Kelly Speakes-Backman quit her job as the principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, or EERE, to become a vice president of public affairs at Invenergy, a green energy company.
One of Invenergy’s focus areas is energy storage and batteries. Electric batteries are a top priority of the Biden administration, specifically the Department of Energy. Intriguingly that was exactly what Speakes-Backman was working on both during and before she joined the administration, where she led the agency’s office on energy efficiency and renewable energy.
During her time as a senior Energy Department official, Speakes-Backman didn’t shy away from promoting her former colleagues at the Energy Storage Association: the exact type of swampy behavior that President Joe Biden’s loosely enforced ethics pledges are designed to prevent.
Protect the Public’s Trust, one of the Biden administration’s least favorite watchdog groups, has been tracking Speakes-Backman’s activities for almost two years. While serving in the administration, she directly advocated for the implementation of the ESA’s policy agenda, even though she no longer worked there.
In one instance, Speakes-Backman told an audience at an event where she was a featured speaker that “I’m stealing this a little bit from my days at Energy Storage Association but [energy storage] really does provide a more resilient, efficient, sustainable and affordable grid.”
It’s not just that this looks problematic. PPT wrote to the Energy Department’s acting assistant general counsel claiming that, by appearing in her official capacity and promoting ESA, Speakes-Backman violated federal regulations that prohibit federal employees from using their official capacity to “endorse specific ‘products, services, or enterprises’ or “give rise to an appearance of use of public office or of giving preferential treatment.”
Just a week later, she keynoted the Association of Energy Engineers’ conference. While the conference had many sponsors, the only one that sponsored her keynote address was ConEdison, a “Leadership Circle Member” of the ESA.
By September 2021, PPT felt that it had no choice but to sue the Department of Energy, which it said had “failed to produce a single record” in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Now, PPT isn’t exactly sad to see her go. “After multiple ethics complaints and months of litigation by PPT, Kelly Speakes-Backman’s exit from the Biden administration to head up the public affairs and lobbying shop of a firm in industries she regulated while at DoE represents a flagrant example of the revolving door of ‘the Swamp’,” Michael Chamberlain, the group’s executive director, told me.
PPT released a document dump of almost 400 pages that it sued to obtain from the Department of Energy, several of which suggest that Speakes-Backman was being considered for various Senate-confirmed roles.
Now, the group is spiking the football following her exit from the administration. “Speakes-Backman appeared to be in contention for nomination to the top Senate-confirmed post at EERE prior to the multiple potential ethics violations being raised,” Chamberlain, told me. Additionally, their report notes that its “litigation exposed a dearth of ethics advice sought by Ms. Speakes-Backman concerning the various events at the center of her ethics complaints and a corresponding lack of interest among department ethics in cautioning her to avoid future ethics landmines.”
Speakes-Backman’s latest career change isn’t even the first time she transitioned from the government to an industry she had been regulating. PPT also notes that almost ten years ago, Speakes-Backman “started at the Exelon-funded Alliance to Save Energy shortly after approving the Exelon-Pepco merger in her role at the Maryland Public Service Commission.”
As the Washington Post reported at the time, “the Alliance to Save Energy offered then-Public Service Commission member Kelly Speakes-Backman a $200,000-a-year job as a senior vice president on May 18, three days after she voted in favor of an acquisition that would make Chicago-based Exelon one of the largest utilities in the nation.” While serving in the Biden administration, Speakes-Backman also appeared on a panel where the only other speaker was the current head of the Alliance to Save Energy.
“Viewed in light of the previous events discussed in this letter, Ms. Speakes-Backman’s public appearances suggest a pattern of advancing the interests of her former employers and potentially endorsing them,” PPT wrote.
Republicans were quick to compare Speakes-Backman’s ethical problems with those of her then-boss, energy secretary Jennifer Granholm. Representative Ralph Norman said at the time that Speakes-Backman’s “relationships and continued communications with former colleagues is reason enough to pursue this further.”
Norman made the comparison to the ethically plagued Granholm explicit. “Similar to her superior Secretary Granholm, the links between Ms. Speakes-Backman and the Energy Storage Association are cause for concern,” he told me. “As more details continue to present themselves, we need to ensure complete transparency. It is imperative that the American people understand that their leaders have their best interest in mind.”
Even while in the minority, members of the Republicans’ Oversight Committee had been dogging the Energy Department about its “lack of transparency and apparent pattern of ethical issues [that raise] questions about the stewardship of the agency by the Biden administration.” As far back as July 2021, Representatives Norman, Paul Gosar and Yvette Herrell — all then members of the Oversight Committee — had been sounding the alarm directly to the energy secretary herself.
“America is facing an unprecedented energy crisis because of the Biden administration’s failed policies — and yet top officials at the Department of Energy are more focused on padding their own bottom line instead of doing what’s best for Americans,” Representative Morgan Luttrell, a newcomer to the House, told me.
And Speakes-Backman is far from the only senior Biden official accused of abusing her position in government to promote the agendas of their most recent employers. While Nada Culver was serving as the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, PPT sounded the alarm that Culver “quickly advanced the very actions sought by her former employer” almost immediately after joining the Biden administration.
At issue in that instance was Culver was the Biden administration’s point person on banning drilling in Alaska. Perhaps coincidentally, banning drilling in Alaska is one of the priorities of the National Audubon Society, where Culver had previously worked.
At the time, PPT wrote to the Biden administration that “absent a waiver from Department ethics officials, [Culver’s advocacy] would appear to violate federal ethics laws as well as the Biden Ethics Pledge, which bars political appointees from participating in particular matters related to their former employers and clients.”
While Republicans were in the House minority, their actions were mostly limited to sending angry letters. Now that they are in control, however, there’s more they can do. Representative James Comer, the new chair of the Oversight Committee, has repeatedly made it clear that that is the plan, going on offense against the Biden administration immediately after he was elected chair of the committee.
“Republicans will return the Oversight Committee to its primary duty to root out waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in the federal government,” he said.
Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a new addition to the Energy and Commerce Committee, reaffirmed this. “Thankfully, now that Republicans hold the majority in the House, we can begin to hold these individuals accountable,” she told me.