As a bribery scandal was brewing in New York, a top energy lobbyist with ties to the Trump administration received $180,000 in payments in 2017 from a company behind a controversial natural gas-fired power plant in New York. The money was for lobbying federal regulators in Washington.
Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist who served on President Trump’s Department of Energy (DOE) transition team in late 2016, has worked as a lobbyist for Competitive Power Ventures (CPV) since 2013. Last year was his most lucrative year lobbying for the company, according to a new report from the watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative (PAI).
CPV paid McKenna $60,000 more than its previous high in 2015, and the sole focus of its lobbying efforts was the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is tasked with overseeing the nation’s energy projects, including natural gas pipelines. This is compared to other years when McKenna would also lobby members of Congress, the report said.
Scrutiny of the CPV power plant project intensified when Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), was indicted in 2016 for soliciting and accepting bribes in return for taking official state action to benefit CPV.
CPV is nearing completion of the major power plant, the CPV Valley Energy Center, in Orange County, New York. While the power plant falls under state jurisdiction, a pipeline proposed by Millennium Pipeline Co. to feed natural gas to the power plant comes under FERC’s authority.
The increased payments to McKenna, president of lobbying firm MWR Strategies, “indicates that CPV is seizing the moment of having a powerful lobbyist who is well-connected to the Trump presidency and a fossil-fuel friendly FERC commission to push its agenda around CPV and other projects,” the report said.
“McKenna is a Trump insider who may have helped shape the current makeup of FERC,” Derek Seidman, a research analyst at PAI and author of the report, said Friday in a statement. “It’s a big problem — especially since we now know that McKenna was lobbying FERC at the same time that FERC overrode New York’s rejection of the Millennium Pipeline that the CPV plant needs approved.”
The $900 million power plant project has faced significant opposition from nearby towns and environmental groups since it was announced more than a decade ago. Many residents are concerned about the potential health and environmental impacts of the power plant.
In a statement CPV described PAI’s report as “the latest political stunt by those who want to ignore the facts and the law.”
“CPV has met and exceeded every state and federal standard to operate this plant and build the pipeline needed to supply it with natural gas, winning hard-fought battles against the Cuomo administration in court as a result,” Tom Rumsey, senior vice president of external affairs for CPV, said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.
McKenna could not be reached for comment on the report.
Millennium Pipeline’s proposed Valley Lateral Project, a 7.8-mile natural gas pipeline that will transport natural gas produced in the Marcellus Shale, is inextricably linked to the power plant. The power plant needs the pipeline to feed it the natural gas that will run the power plant.
After the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation denied key permits for the pipeline in August 2017, FERC overturned those denials in September 2017 at a time when McKenna was lobbying the agency, according to federal lobbying filings.
“The timing of FERC’s overruling of New York’s decision to reject the Millennium Pipeline, along with the vital importance of the pipeline to the CPV Valley plant, raises the question of whether McKenna was pressing FERC to force through the pipeline during his tenure on Trump’s transition team and as CPV’s lobbyist,” the report said.
Even though FERC has strict rules against “ex parte” communications — commissioners and staff members cannot have a non-public meeting or conference calls with individuals about ongoing proceedings or open dockets — lobbyists are permitted to meet with commissioners or staff member to have general discussions about issues that may impact their clients.
Commissioners are generally vigilant about ensuring they do not discuss ongoing proceedings in the meetings they have on a regular basis with stakeholders.
Connection to New York bribery scandal
Last month, a federal jury found Percoco, the former Cuomo aide, guilty of three charges tied to political corruption. The jury “appeared to find fault” with his dealings on behalf of CPV, the New York Times reported.
In 2017, as the indictment of Percoco loomed over Albany, New York, CPV — worried about increased scrutiny of its CPV Valley Energy Center tied to the Percoco investigation — “massively increased” its spending on lobbyists, hiring a firm close to Cuomo, according to the report.
“The Percoco scandal placed major scrutiny on the process that went into approving the Valley Energy Center,” Seidman said. “It’s pretty clear that CPV felt the heat and, in response, drastically ramped up its efforts to buy influence in Albany to protect its controversial power plant.”
PAI manages a database called LittleSis that tracks relationships between politicians, business leaders, and lobbyists.
NEW: As the Percoco scandal loomed over Albany, CPV more than quadrupled its lobbying spending on Cuomo- and Trump-tied lobbyists to protect its controversial power plant: https://t.co/mtKLPH36Xj @foodandwater @joshfoxfilm pic.twitter.com/J2Hb3bTdNF
— LittleSis.org (@twittlesis) April 20, 2018
In the report, PAI noted that CPV Valley LLC — a CPV subsidiary that oversees the power plant project — recently began its own federal lobbying efforts. In the third and fourth quarters of 2017, CPV Valley paid lobbying firm Akin Gump $100,000 to lobby the U.S. House on the issue of “natural gas infrastructure development,” the report said.
McKenna’s lobbying for CPV in Washington in 2017 occurred at the same time CPV was trying to control fallout from the Percoco scandal, according to the report. McKenna personally lobbied FERC every quarter of 2016 and 2017, except for the fourth quarter of 2016, when he briefly served as the head of Trump’s DOE transition.
In addition to CPV, McKenna has lobbied for several energy companies and trade groups over the past 13 years, including Southern Co., Teco Energy, and the National Petrochemical Refiners Association.
McKenna was selected by Trump to head his energy transition in late September 2016, prior to the election. The lobbyist was put in a position to potentially shape — pending a Trump victory — a department with crucial regulatory oversight over the clients he had long served, according to the report.
“Perhaps most importantly, McKenna would have a role in shaping the composition of FERC, which has a major regulatory role over the business of companies like CPV and other McKenna clients,” the report said.
McKenna resigned his position on November 18, 2016, due to Trump’s new rule that transition team members would have to de-register as lobbyists. He was replaced by climate change denier Thomas Pyle, who heads up the Koch-funded Institute for Energy Research and its advocacy wing, the American Energy Alliance.