By Donald K. Sherman
February 15, 2019

Over the last two years, President Donald Trump and his administration have routinely ignored ethics norms and guidelines to benefit his supporters in the coal industry. For example, Trump nominated a former coal lobbyist to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, who is now subject to an ethics complaint based on his alleged involvement in coal regulation matters despite his recusal obligations. This week, President Trump urged the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a publicly owned utility company, to save an aging coal plant whose supplier is owned by Trump’s political patron. On Thursday, despite the President’s intervention, TVA voted to retire the plant because it was no longer a good investment for the public. While in this case TVA did not bend to the President’s political pressure, significant concerns remain because Trump has allowed TVA’s independent watchdog, the TVA Office of Inspector General (OIG), to remain without permanent, Senate-confirmed leadership for nearly 18 months.

TVA’s potential ethics quandary began on Monday when the President tweeted at the company stating, “Coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix and @TVAnews should give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky!”  TVA responded to the request, tweeting, “Mr. President, coal is an important part of TVA’s power generation mix and we will give serious consideration to all factors as we make this decision.” While this exchange appears innocuous given Trump’s known support for coal, the move suggests more personal motivations. TVA was set to consider closing multiple coal facilities on Thursday, but Trump mentioned only one in his tweet, the Paradise 3. The Paradise 3 plant buys coal from a subsidiary of Murray Energy, whose CEO Robert Murray is a personal and political benefactor of Trump. Murray’s company donated $1 million to the Trump-supporting super PAC America First Action in 2017 and $300,000 to the Trump Inauguration. Murray has also been a “high rate” and “VIP” customer at the President’s Washington, DC hotel. The TVA board also considered closing a Tennessee coal plant this week, but with no apparent ties to Trump, the project did not receive a presidential tweet.

On Thursday, TVA announced that it would shutter Paradise 3 and the Tennessee plant for economic reasons, but the impact of the President’s advocacy this week or going forward remains unclear. That’s one reason why CREW has sent a Freedom of Information Act request to TVA for any White House communications with the public utility about Paradise 3. The President has frequently used his bully pulpit to pressure federal employees to take action that align with his personal and political interests. Trump has also threatened those who don’t do his political bidding. CREW’s request could reveal if and how Trump’s political appointees intervened with TVA to support the President’s ally. However, there are also other avenues for the public to understand the effect of Trump’s comments on TVA’s process and to prevent potential retaliation against TVA employees.

The TVA OIG uses audits, investigations, and other tools to “prevent and detect fraud, waste, and abuse.” TVA OIG has previously reviewed whether an elected official pressured TVA employees or whether TVA employees were inappropriately impacted by political influence. In 2008, TVA OIG reviewed TVA employees’ decision impacting the investment interest of then-Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC), who served on two congressional committees with oversight authority over the utility. OIG launched the inquiry to examine whether “TVA gave anyone preferential treatment” in its decision making “because doubt was cast on the fairness of the TVA process.” OIG examined TVA documents and interviewed 94 people including TVA employees, board members, and Shuler himself. Although Shuler was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, OIG found that “certain actions by TVA and others created an appearance of preferential treatment” and that the company had no clear “criteria for evaluating public benefit” or protocol “for identifying inherent conflicts of interest by those applying for any TVA benefit.”

OIG has the authority to ensure TVA decisions are made irrespective of outside political pressure, but it remains one of 12 federal IG offices lacking permanent leadership. TVA’s IG position has been vacant since September 2017 when former IG Richard Moore resigned to become Trump’s U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. OIG is currently run by Acting IG Jill Matthews, a 31 year veteran of the office, who began the same year as the very first TVA IG.  Despite Matthews’ long tenure, Trump has declined to nominate her or anyone else to be the permanent IG, and because she is not Senate-confirmed, Matthews lacks the same authority as her predecessor.  Investigating the impact of Trump’s comments here could also hinder Matthews’ prospects for becoming the permanent IG. As Council of the Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) Chair Michael Horowitz has acknowledged, no matter how experienced an acting IG may be, a permanent IG “will be seen as having greater independence.” He added that a sustained absence of permanent leadership “is neither prudent nor reflective of good governance.”

President Trump’s intervention in TVA’s process regarding the Paradise 3 plant is hardly surprising. Trump routinely pressures public officials to make decisions that are in his personal or political interest without regard to their impact on the public interest. Although it appears that in this case, the President’s efforts did not change TVA’s final decision, having a permanent Senate-confirmed IG remains critical. It will ensure that TVA employees can make decisions unencumbered by political pressure, appropriately identify conflicts for those seeking benefits from TVA, and report interference or retribution if it occurs in the future. Perhaps that’s why Trump has allowed this post to remain vacant for so long.