Top Biden Official Promoting Policy Agenda of Former Employer, Ethics Watchdog Says

Group calls for investigation of Bureau of Land Management acting director Nada Culver

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June 14, 2021

A watchdog group is sounding the alarm that a top Biden administration official is doing the bidding of her former employer while working in the highest levels of the administration.

Nada Culver, who is serving as acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, has taken the lead for the administration on the issue of banning drilling in Alaska. The policy initiative is one of the primary goals of Culver's previous employer, the National Audubon Society, prompting a watchdog to ask the agency's inspector general to look into whether Culver may be violating both the Biden administration's ethics pledge and federal law.

"Upon arriving at [Bureau of Land Management], Culver quickly advanced the very actions sought by her former employer," Protect the Public's Trust said in a statement on its letter to the agency. "Absent a waiver from Department ethics officials, this would appear to violate federal ethics laws as well as the Biden Ethics Pledge, which bars political appointees from participating in particular matters related to their former employers and clients."

In a letter sent Monday, the group said Culver's ongoing work supporting the National Audubon Society's agenda raises "concerns about her impartiality."

The group cites two potential violations: the Biden administration's revolving door ban and federal law that "requires appointees to consult with ethics officials and receive approval prior to participating personally and substantially in a matter where a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would question their impartiality."

Several Biden administration officials have come under fire for using their government position to advance their personal interests. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm faced significant backlash over her large financial stake in Proterra, an electric vehicle company on which she sat on the board of directors. The administration has said it will direct money to the company through its infrastructure plan. Kelly Speakes-Backman, a top Granholm deputy in the Energy Department, has been accused of repeatedly boosting a green energy lobbying group that she formerly led as CEO.

Prior to Culver joining the Biden administration, she served as vice president of public lands and senior policy counsel at the National Audubon Society. During that time, the National Audubon Society's Alaska chapter partnered with nine other environmental organizations to oppose then-Interior secretary David Bernhardt's plan to open public land in Alaska for Vietnam veterans and mineral exploration.

In her current role, Culver serves as the point person for the Biden administration on achieving the National Audubon Society's goals. On April 15, Culver announced the agency will delay implementing Bernhardt's recommendations by two years–exactly what the National Audubon Society had asked for while Culver was with the group. Culver is the sole government official quoted in several Bureau of Land Management press releases on its review of land use in Alaska.

Protect the Public's Trust's analysis of Culver's role at the Bureau of Land Management finds evidence of potential conflict. "An outside observer familiar with the relevant facts and circumstances has reason to believe that Ms. Culver's participation in these [public land orders] present the appearance of bias toward her former employer, a $500 million national special interest organization involved in the issue," the group wrote to the Interior ethics officials.

While Audubon Alaska may seem to be separate from the national organization that employed Culver, its donation page links to the national organization; as such, the watchdog group claims that "there is no distinction between the organizations and they must therefore be considered the same entity for purposes of determining Ms. Culver's covered relationships."

Culver will serve as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management until a permanent director is confirmed by the Senate.

The Department of the Interior declined to comment about Culver's potential conflicts of interest. The Bureau of Land Management did not respond to a request for comment.