When Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, was picked by President Trump as secretary of state, immediately there were questions about potential conflicts of interest and the oil tycoon’s ability to made conflict-free decisions in his new role. So he agreed to sell more than 600,000 shares of his company, worth more than $54 million. He gave up potential bonuses and benefits. Then he retired from Exxon, satisfying even Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
Speaking of Presidents, Donald Trump has filed paperwork to remove himself from the day-to-day operations of his business. However, questions about how the president will still profit from his empire while in office leave ethical questions about his plan remaining. There are still plenty of people clamoring about the tax returns he never released, and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington even filed a lawsuit against him, arguing “that several of Trump’s businesses present avenues by which foreign governments could seek to influence the president by, for example, booking stays at one of his hotels or renting space at one of his properties.” The point–Trump’s potential conflicts of interest aren’t being taken lightly, and Trump’s neutrality in decision-making will be closely scrutinized going forward.
Those who question both President Trump and Rex Tillerson’s abilities to step back from their businesses do it for a reason–to ensure that those in power don’t use that power for personal gain. But that’s exactly what a recent Dallas News article questioned. But it wasn’t Trump or Tillerson the article picked apart. It was Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton.
Elected in 2014, Sitton seemed like the perfect fit for the open seat on the commission. As a conservative Republican, he seemed to hold the values many of his constituents liked. He touted business expertise coupled with oil and gas industry experience, since his company PinnacleART consults with some of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world, such as Exxon, BP, and ConocoPhillips. Once elected, Sitton resigned as CEO of Pinnacle and put his ownership in a blind trust, a typical way for a public figure to keep personal interests from interfering with decision-making while in public office.
The oil and gas business magazine, Shale, wrote an article in 2015 about the youngest commissioner ever elected. It seems that Sitton appears to be an ethical businessman. Their descriptors are almost gushing:
Seldom are the words “genuine” and “politician” used in the same sentence. Almost as often do you hear of an elected official being described as “energetic,” “innovative” or “passionate.” But in many respects, Texas’ newest Railroad Commissioner, Ryan Sitton, is breaking the traditional mold.
The article even discussed Sitton’s objective to create formal channels of communication for discussion so that public concerns about the state of the energy industry would better be addressed at the Railroad Commission, “rather than letting tension compound and potentially allowing a slew of similar ordinances and lawsuits, further wasting taxpayers’ dollars and putting the energy industry in a crippling state of flux.” The magazine also described Sitton’s commitment to public outreach and education in Texas. The article that praised Sitton for several pages ended with Sitton’s departing comments on his stepdown from Pinnacle from a December 2014 press release. Sitton said:
These steps will make sure that the citizens of the State of Texas are confident as I go to work for them. My time, energy and passion will be focused on utilizing my energy experience to help the Railroad Commission be as efficient and effective as it can be, and in turn, make all Texans confident in how our state’s energy industry is operating.
So what beef could anyone possibly have with the commissioner?
Dallas News takes issue with several of Sitton’s actions over the course of his term thus far as commissioner:
- Sitton’s blind trust is run by his brother-in-law.
- Sitton has voted on dozens of issues involving energy companies that hire his firm, PinnacleART, such as ConocoPhilips, Exxon and BP America Production Co.
- Sitton has played a big role in deciding a few contentious decisions.
- In a Forbes article from December, Sitton ssaid he spends ten percent of his time at the offices of PinnacleART.
- The Pinnacle website shows Sitton’s photo before the CEO.
- A Pinnacle recruiter included Sitton, acting in the capacity of commissioner, would be at a recruiting event to “mingle with students.”
- Sitton has not recused himself from any votes involving potential conflicts of interest.
- Sitton did not disclose that companies sitting before the RRC were clients of his.
- Sitton’s biggest campaign donors are from energy companies.
Even though Sitton said that stepping down as CEO of Pinnacle and putting his assets in a blind trust were done to “avoid even the appearance of conflict,” and he was “going beyond what is required by the statutes,” Craig McDonald, director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, said, “Just because it’s sitting in a blind trust doesn’t mean it will eliminate the conflict.” I think that’s part of the point that Dallas News is trying to make. Sitton doesn’t appear to be objective in his decision-making, despite claiming that he has no conflicts of interest.
“How do you regulate an industry you’re making money off of?” asked Alan Brundrett, the mayor of Azle, Texas, a city near two earthquakes that were likely caused by XTO. “Or how do you fairly regulate it, anyway, for the best interest of the people in the state?”
This is the question that the Dallas News leaves us with. Is Sitton doing his job fairly, or is he allowing his business interests to influence his decision-making? Is he abusing the power that was given to him, in confidence, by the people who elected him, or is the Dallas News on a political witch hunt to discredit the “genuine” young man that has the people’s best interests in mind?