Granholm Deputy Flagged Over Conflict of Interest Concern

Kelly Speakes-Backman promoted former employer as head of DOE's energy efficiency and renewable energy office

Kelly Speakes-Backman / YouTube
May 28, 2021

Jennifer Granholm isn’t the only top Biden official in the Department of Energy under scrutiny for conflict of interest.

Kelly Speakes-Backman, a top Granholm deputy, is under fire for a series of events in which she promoted the Energy Storage Association, an industry trade association she helmed as chief executive officer until she was tapped by the Biden administration in January. In her official capacity as head of the agency's energy efficiency and renewable energy office, she promoted the policy proposals of her former employer.

Protect the Public's Trust, a watchdog focused on identifying conflict of interest, says Speakes-Backman improperly promoted the Energy Storage Association in her official capacity. In a letter to the agency's general counsel, the group points to a series of events where Speakes-Backman drew on several policy recommendations made by the industry lobbying group. The watchdog says the speeches "suggest a pattern of advancing the interests of her former employers and potentially endorsing them."

The accusation comes as Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm works to sidestep her own conflict of interest problems. Granholm this week sold millions of dollars' worth of stock in Proterra, an electric battery company that has been boosted by the administration. Her investment is the target of several inquiries from Capitol Hill, where Republicans are seeking information on whether Granholm played a role in boosting her financial stake since being confirmed in February.

The watchdog specifically points to an April 16 event featuring Speakes-Backman by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation. During her speech, Speakes-Backman suggested the Biden administration adopt the Energy Storage Association's policy recommendations.

"Back in December 2020, when I was still with the Energy Storage Association, DOE published the energy storage grand challenge road map," Speakes-Backman said. Just over 10 minutes later, she told viewers that "I’m stealing this a little bit from my days at Energy Storage Association but [energy storage] really does provide a more resilient, efficient, sustainable, and affordable grid."

During that same conference, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend, a member of the Energy Storage Association, according to its website, said it will be tough referring to Speakes-Backman by her official title moving forward because he has known her for so long.

"It’s going to be tough to refer to her as the acting secretary or the assistant secretary because I know her as Kelly having worked with her closely on the Energy Storage Association for years," Mark Riedy told the audience.

A week after she repeatedly praised ESA in her government role, Speakes-Backman gave a keynote address on April 21 at an Association of Energy Engineers’ conference. While the conference had many sponsors, there was only one sponsor of her keynote address: ConEdison, a "Leadership Circle Member" of the ESA.

Protect the Public's Trust said Speakes-Backman's tenure at the Maryland Public Service Commission was marred by conflict of interest as well. "She started at the Exelon-funded Alliance to Save Energy shortly after approving the Exelon-Pepco merger in her role at the Maryland Public Service Commission," PPT wrote.

On March 11, Speakes-Backman was on a panel of two at an event hosted by the National Association of Energy Service Companies. Her fellow panelist was Kelly Glover, the president of the Alliance to Save Energy.

Michael Chamberlain, PPT’s director, told the Washington Free Beacon that just because Speakes-Backman isn’t the top official in the department doesn’t mean she should evade scrutiny.

"These federal agencies have such incredible scope that sub-cabinet officials are often entrusted with significant authority but without the same scrutiny," Chamberlain said. "The American public should be able to trust that these officials are following the rules just like everyone else."

Republicans on the Hill are starting to take note of the scandals facing the Department of Energy’s top leaders. Rep. Ralph Norman (R., S.C.) told the Free Beacon that Speakes-Backman's "relationships and continued communications with former colleagues is reason enough to pursue this further."

"Similar to her superior Secretary Granholm, the links between Ms. Speakes-Backman and the Energy Storage Association are cause for concern," the congressman said. "As more details continue to present themselves, we need to ensure complete transparency. It is imperative that the American people understand that their leaders have their best interest in mind."

The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

Updated 5/28/21 at 4:16 p.m.