Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm committed a "flagrant" violation of ethics rules by using her official position to promote products of her former employer, electric bus manufacturer Proterra, according to a watchdog complaint obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Government watchdog Protect the Public's Trust notified the Department of Energy's inspector general on Friday of its concerns regarding a Nov. 1 event in which Granholm appeared at an official administration event with Proterra buses prominently displayed behind her. Granholm's participation in the event, where more than $100 million worth of government grants were announced to support electric vehicle manufacturers, was a "conscious, flagrant affront to her ethics obligations," the watchdog wrote.
"A full investigation is warranted to understand whether and to what extent Secretary Granholm has violated her legal and ethics obligations as a Cabinet official," Protect the Public's Trust director Michael Chamberlain wrote in the group's letter to agency ethics officials.
The letter argues that it was unethical for Granholm to participate in an event in which grants that "directly and predictably benefit Proterra" were announced. During the event, where Granholm was flanked by Proterra buses and joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and several senators, she praised Proterra's battery technology.
"We are doing it, going 400, 500, 600 miles on a charge," Granholm said, referencing the technology in the Proterra-powered vehicles behind her. Granholm announced $127 million in government grants to fund electric vehicles, gesturing to her former company's vehicles.
As energy secretary, Granholm is bound by the Biden administration’s ethics pledge, which prevents officials from "participating in particular matters ... directly and substantially related to their former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts."
The Nov. 1 event followed several months of public scrutiny into the administration's promotion of Proterra, which has come from President Joe Biden himself. Granholm had distanced herself from public events directly involving Proterra due to her large financial stake in the company, which she sold for a $1.6 million profit in May.
Proterra has made clear to investors that it is counting on significant government investment as part of its business plan. It told shareholders in August that it planned to "ride the wave" of the Biden administration's proposed infrastructure plan, which was approved by Congress last week. The plan includes billions of dollars' worth of investment in electric batteries, and Proterra boasts in company reports that it positioned itself to profit from the taxpayer funds.
Protect the Public's Trust argues that any reasonable person with knowledge of Granholm's history with Proterra would question whether the company received "preferential treatment" from the secretary. The government watchdog says Granholm should have felt obligated to consult with government ethics officials before participating in the event involving Proterra.
The watchdog also says Granholm should recuse herself from all government business involving grants that would be made available to Proterra.
The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.