By Linnaea Honl-Stuenkel
October 3, 2019

On September 6, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced the creation of an Office for Artificial Intelligence and Technology within the Department of Energy. According to Perry’s 2019 personal financial disclosure, his wife holds stock in at least three companies involved in artificial intelligence and machine learning, including Verizon, AT&T and Splunk. The fact that Perry’s financial interests coincide with his uncharacteristic interest in expanding a government program could pose an ethics problem for Perry, who so far has largely stayed out of the limelight in the ethically challenged Trump administration. 

Perry is well known for calling for the Department of Energy to be abolished in 2011 while campaigning for president. Though Perry since changed his mind about the need for the department, he has overseen steep cuts to its budget. In 2016, the Energy Department under President Obama requested $32.5 billion for FY 2017. The next year, Perry requested $28 billion for FY 2018 — more than a 13% cut. Though Energy Department budgets have begun to creep back up over the years, from $30.6 billion for FY 2019, to $31.7 billion for FY 2020, members of Congress have expressed concern that critical programs for renewable energy and national security are being under-funded.

While many Energy programs are being cut, artificial intelligence (AI) has managed to attract Perry’s attention and his favor. He created an office to oversee AI in September, and allocated $119 million in funding for AI in 2020. The vision for the new office is to “transform DOE into a world-leading AI enterprise by accelerating the research, development, delivery, and adoption of AI.” Perry stressed in the rollout of the office that it will help to ensure that the U.S. remains an international leader in AI technology.

Conceivably, the office’s research and delivery of AI technology will benefit American companies that are prioritizing AI and machine learning. Verizon, AT&T and Splunk are among those companies, and Rick Perry’s wife happens to have investments in each of them. Since the investments are reported in terms of a range of values, it is impossible to know the exact dollar figure, but they total between $17k and $80k. 

While we can’t yet know whether these companies will benefit directly from the new AI office, they do seem to have made AI technology a part of their business model. Verizon has pushed the message that it is using AI to “help maintain network superiority,” and improve performance. AT&T says that “AI and machine learning are woven into customer interactions, our software-defined network and next-gen technologies.” Splunk calls itself the “first Data-to-Everything Platform” and offers a Machine Learning Toolkit, which it says is a subset of AI. This year, Anita Perry also sold her stock in Tesla and Microsoft, which would also have raised ethics questions given her husband’s opening of the AI office if she had not sold them. 

In an administration that has slashed the federal budget, the projects with the best chance for funding seem to be pet projects for leadership, like Elaine Chao’s special pipeline for Kentucky grants that would be politically helpful for her husband, Senator Mitch McConnell. Beyond appropriation of funds, there are countless examples of conflicts of interest involving members of the administration and their families, from Ivanka Trump’s advocacy for Opportunity Zones, to the CEO of Accuweather being appointed to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to Scott Pruitt using his EPA staff to try to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise. Of course in the most obvious grift, the president himself has turned over the operation of his business to his sons, but appears not to have fully disentangled himself from the operation and has infamously failed to divest. While Perry’s wife’s investments in these technology companies may not be on this same massive scale, they still spark ethics questions. To settle the questions, she should divest.