A disclosure form lists the husband of the general counsel of the White House Council on Environmental Quality as lobbying his wife’s employer on the National Environmental Policy Act, the council’s top issue. But both the council and lobbying group deny any such lobbying happened.
The Council on Environmental Quality issued a proposal last month to speed environmental permitting for major projects such as roads, bridges, and pipelines, seeking the most significant changes to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations in more than four decades. The proposal has drawn near-universal criticism from environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers, but also strong support from industry representatives.
The proposed changes have also prompted deeper scrutiny of the work of the council, which oversees environmental permitting for federal projects. Viktoria Seale is the agency’s general counsel.
Her husband, John Seale, is director of federal affairs at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a chemical industry lobbying group. On its lobbying disclosure form for the last quarter of 2019, the group lists NEPA among its many lobbying issues. It also lists CEQ among the agencies the group has approached, and John Seale among the individuals “who acted as a lobbyist in this issue area.”
Both the CEQ and the American Chemistry Council say John Seale has never met with the agency. And ACC spokesman Scott Openshaw said Seale has never lobbied about NEPA for the group.
“Mr. Seale’s name, along with the other registered lobbyists at ACC, appear on a lobbying disclosure report listing out all of the activities ACC is engaged in,” CEQ spokesman Daniel Schneider said in an email. “John has never been to CEQ to lobby on any matters, nor is NEPA a part of his portfolio at ACC. Ms. Seale has not met with ACC either.”
Seale is former legislative director for Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La). He joined the ACC a little more than two years ago.
‘Physically Leaves the Room’
Viktoria Seale “promptly disclosed the change in her husband’s job when it occurred and consulted CEQ’s career ethics official, who subsequently evaluated the situation and worked with Ms. Seale to define the limits of what she could work on at CEQ,” Schneider said.
When asked to provide written documentation confirming Viktoria Seale’s recusals, Schneider did not do so, but reiterated his earlier statement that she had consulted with CEQ’s ethics official.
A spokeswoman with the Office of Government Ethics said only Senate-confirmed government officials must file ethics agreements with the OGE. For other officials, ethics agreements are up to the employing agency’s discretion.
John Seale took his current job in February 2018. Viktoria Seale has been at CEQ since June 2017, first as deputy general counsel, then as general counsel starting in June 2018.
Federal law forbids a government employee from taking part in matters that will affect his or her spouse’s continued employment, compensation, and benefits. In cases where a reasonable person would question an employee’s impartiality, the law bars the employee from participating in the matter without first telling the agency and getting authorization.
A CEQ spokesman said Viktoria Seale “physically leaves the room” before any discussions start at the agency concerning chemical policy. “She’s recused from these issues.”
Kedric Payne, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said it’s “extremely common” in Washington for a public official to be married to a lobbyist.
Louis Clark, executive director and CEO of the Government Accountability Project, broadly agreed.
“It’s very common that spouses are going to be professional people who will have positions that put them in a conflict potentially, and I just think that’s to be expected. I would not criticize that,” Clark said. “We hope that they don’t collude. If they did, it would be very hard to prove.”
But environmental groups were more critical.
“What happened to Trump’s promise to drain the swamp?” asked Chris Saeger, director of strategic initiatives at watchdog group Accountable.US. “The Senate Lobbying Disclosure database says that John Seale lobbied CEQ on NEPA, where his wife serves as general counsel. If, as CEQ claims, this isn’t the case, they need to prove it.”
‘Direct Conflict of Interest’
The CEQ spokesman said he wasn’t sure how to prove that John Seale had never lobbied CEQ on NEPA because doing so would be tantamount to “proving a meeting that didn’t happen.”
Stephen Schima, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice, said it was “absolutely laughable that this administration thinks it can claim CEQ’s general counsel isn’t serving the whims of polluters when she’s married to a polluter lobbyist.”
“It’s a direct conflict of interest, and no amount of self-regulation can change that,” he said.
Scott Amey, general counsel of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said he found it concerning that CEQ didn’t provide written documentation attesting to Viktoria Seale’s recusals.
“Conflicts of interest issues can arise on a daily basis, so it’s always nice to have ethics questions and concerns raised in a letter to the government employee, and possibly to their staff, so that they know that on a daily basis that they’re aware that these conflicts could pop up, based on a telephone call or a meeting,” Amey said. “It’s always nice to have something memorialized as a constant reminder.”
CEQ convened its second, and final, round of public meetings on the proposed NEPA rule on Tuesday.
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