Path from Regulators to Regulated Is Well Worn
By Dave Fehling, StateImpact Texas
It’s called the revolving door: People who used to work as regulators for the state of Texas, but then quit to go work for the companies they used to watch over. Critics are saying that Texas ethics laws are too loose, and the revolving doors need to close.
Patricia Bobeck worked as a geologist for the state of Texas, investigating high-profile cases of groundwater contamination. It was a job she loved.
Until she didn’t. Five years ago, Patricia Bobeck quit.
“I felt that my geological expertise was being pushed over to the sidelines in favor of politics,” Bobeck said.
She was working for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. She’d been assigned a case involving a company’s application to build a disposal site for radioactive waste in West Texas.
After much research, she decided it was too risky. But her rejection of the company’s application was overruled by higher-ups in what has become a highly publicized case.
One reason the case drew attention from critics of the TCEQ was that the agency’s executive director at the time also quit, to go work for the disposal company.
The company denies there was ever a quid pro quo agreement and said it was hardly a big deal because it’s so common for high-level managers at TCEQ to leave for jobs in the private sector.
Which Patricia Bobeck said is exactly what she saw.
“I’ve seen the revolving door work for the last 20 years I was working for state government,” she said. “Any number of management people move out of state government and into industry working on the same cases they were working on while they were at TCEQ.”
Generally speaking, it’s completely legal and commonplace.
Just look at websites for posting resumes. A search for people who’ve worked as state environmental regulators shows dozens, including investigators and inspectors, who’ve quit the state and joined oil and gas companies, sometimes the same companies they oversaw for the state.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong,” said Luke Metzger, who advocates for clean air and water with the group Environment Texas. “One is that as an existing TCEQ employee you might be looking ahead to your own career and thinking you might go work for some of these companies. You don’t want to slam down a company you might want to work for later down the road.”
Metzger lobbied Texas lawmakers to tighten ethics laws last year. Those efforts failed.
Republican lawmakers said ex-state regulators shouldn’t be prevented from making an honest living.
But former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, said the revolving door is part of a larger concern: the industry’s influence over state agencies and the Legislature.
“The ability of people to affect the law on this has been, at least for a decade, dramatically affected by the control these polluters have, not only of the agency that’s designed to protect the air, but of the committees that should be hearing what the public has to say,” Shapleigh said.
Under the state’s ethics guidelines, the issue is explicitly addressed in what are called the first and the second revolving door rules.
The first makes it illegal for agency board members or executive directors to lobby on behalf of a private company that has business before the agency until two years after they quit.
The second adds upper-level employees to the law and says none of them can ever be paid to represent their new employer on any “particular matter in which he or she participated in while serving in the agency.”
But critics say the interpretation of that can be extremely narrow, making it all but totally ineffective.
The TCEQ said it provides ethics training to all employees, but the agency wouldn’t provide anyone to be interviewed for this story; nor would oil and gas industry representatives.