Hundreds of U.S. Department of Energy officials or their family members are engaging in trading of “stocks related to the agency’s work,” according to a new analysis by The Wall Street Journal.
In Feb. 22 reporting, WSJ stated that “in recent years” ethics officials for the federal government have warned as many as one-third of the DOE’s senior officials about their holdings, cautioning against violations of conflict of interest rules.
The Journal examined financial disclosures filed with the SEC of the 300 officials in question between 2017 and 2021, finding that “most held on to the stocks.”
“Nearly six dozen” of the group in question traded shares in major bluechip energy companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron, the Journal added.
The investigation found that 130 officials had conducted as many as 2,700 trades of “shares, bonds and options” over the period of “companies that ethics officers labeled as related to their agency’s work.”
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WSJ said that the Department’s policies and rules do not categorically forbid officials from trading in stocks related to the agency’s work. Instead, compliance lawyers review financial disclosures and send officials a letter reminding them to maintain due diligence and keep themselves separated from those companies’ matters.
“In the meantime, the official is allowed to continue owning the stock and is certified as complying with federal conflict-of-interest rules,” the Journal noted.
Regulations only prohibit officials from working “personally and substantially” on matters related to companies they or their family members own a stake in, the article added.
In total, 28 and 17 senior officials held stock in Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron respectively, while 23 senior officials held an interest in the Dow, relevant because it’s a materials index.
Both companies have performed exceptionally well over the past three years. Exxon Mobil, after trading at a low of $30.11 during the March of 2020 Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) panic set a new all time high in October of 2022 at $112.91.
Chevron has performed similarly, trading to a low of $51.60 in March of 2020 before setting a new all time high of $144 in February of 2022. By November, Chevron peaked at $189.68.
The Journal added that the DOE’s policies have loopholes such that they do not “take into account whether officials have knowledge of or could come across information affecting companies they invest in.”
“Unless ethics lawyers believe the official wields substantial influence over policies or other matters affecting the companies, they don’t direct the official to sell the stock,” the authors added.
Yet the outlet identified a pair of scenarios where officials did directly oversee business pertaining to stock they held positions in.
One such case was of an “overseer of two federal research labs in California” who made more than 130 trades in 18 companies “the department identified as related to its work,” including Chevron.
The official made 18 trades in Chevron starting in 2017 when the company worked with the DOE lab they governed working on X-rays and crude oil to determine corrosion rates, ranging in size between $15,000 and $50,000.
Chevron’s stock traded an average price of $115 during that period. However, in 2020, the official made six more trades, this time in a size between $50,000 and $100,000.
A more notable case was that of a senior advisor in the DOE electricity division “who worked on problems involving the modernization, expansion and reliability of transmission grids.”
The advisor reported more than 450 trades between 2016 and 2021 in stocks flagged by ethics officials as being related to his work. He told the WSJ that his wife, a “a professional day-trader” made the trades based on the results of a stock scanner.
Most notable were 16 trades made in SunPower Corporation, which received a DOE grant funded by the man’s division and other Department divisions.
SunPower traded for approximately $4 between September of 2016 and April of 2020. Starting in August of 2020, the stock took off, multiplying in price from $6 a share to over $56 a share by January of 2021.
“Ethics officials noted SunPower’s link to the department’s work in July 2018 and sent [the official] a letter about it. He reported trading the stock twice later that year, in increments of $15,001 to $50,000,” the Journal stated.
Donna Nagy, Executive Associate Dean at Indiana University Maurer School of Law told the Journal that conflicts of interest in government officials’ stock trading is certainly a matter of public concern.
“At the end of the day, you’re still having the public question the decision-making of federal officials and still questioning whether the individuals are engaged in self-interested decision-making,” she stated.
Nagy asked, “How many public resources do we wish to spend on compliance in order to allow securities trading?