A watchdog group is suing the Department of Energy, saying the department has illegally stonewalled requests for public documents that pertain to possible misconduct by a top official.
The Thursday complaint by Protect the Public's Trust, which was first obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, says the Department of Energy has "failed to produce a single record" in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for documents from the agency. The watchdog group is investigating whether Kelly Speakes-Backman, who leads the agency's office on energy efficiency and renewable energy, has pushed the goals of her former employer, an association that promotes electric batteries, in her government position.
"News reports raise serious questions about a ‘pattern of ethical issues' at the Department of Energy and specifically Ms. Speakes-Backman's ability to fulfill her duties without endorsing the work of her former employer and without favoring her former employer's members," the complaint states.
Protect the Public's Trust director Michael Chamberlain said months of working to get the documents from Department of Energy made clear that litigation was the only route.
"Citizens should not be forced to sue the government to obtain public records, especially when they pertain to apparent ethics violations by officials who have been appointed to serve the public," Chamberlain told the Free Beacon. "Yet this seems to be where [Protect the Public's Trust] is headed with [the Department of Energy] and several other agencies as we raise tough questions and seek documents that expose potential misconduct. While litigation is never preferable, it may be the only way to bring transparency and accountability to this administration."
The lawsuit calls on the Energy Department to produce documents first requested by the watchdog group in May.
Before she joined the Department of Energy this year, Speakes-Backman helmed the Energy Storage Association, an industry trade organization that focuses on electric batteries. She is now the head of the department's energy efficiency and renewable energy office, at which she has promoted the policy proposals the Energy Storage Association has long called on the department to adopt.
The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
The agency has faced similar ethics questions over Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm's promotion of the electric battery industry while she owned millions of dollars in private stock of Proterra, an electric battery company. Granholm, who also served on Proterra's board, ultimately sold off the multimillion-dollar stake to an undisclosed buyer.
The Department of Energy promised it would disclose the details of Granholm's stock sale but has stonewalled the Free Beacon‘s requests for the information. The sale netted Granholm a $1.6 million profit.