Summary of the Investigation
In March 2013, we received information from special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) about potential improper influence by Steve Black, at the time a senior counselor to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and one of the Department’s designated leads in energy matters. While investigating the death of a golden eagle at a NextEra Energy Resources wind farm in California, FWS agents learned that Black was dating NextEra lobbyist Manal Yamout and were concerned that the relationship may have influenced alternative energy decisions involving the company.
Our investigation sought to determine if Black gave preferential treatment to NextEra. We also examined the timing of his recusal from NextEra matters, which occurred months after he reportedly began dating Yamout. During our investigation, we discovered that Black was also friends with an attorney/lobbyist who conducted work for NextEra, and that they met on NextEra project-related issues. We examined whether this relationship also improperly affected any of Black’s decisions or caused Black to improperly influence any decisions related to the company’s projects.
We became aware of two other issues pertaining to Black during the course of our investigation. We learned that Black expressed interest in becoming chief executive officer of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) around the time he was interacting with AWEA officials in his Government capacity. In addition, some FWS and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees said they felt pressure from Black to move renewable energy projects forward despite environmental concerns. We incorporated these matters into our investigation of Black.
We found that Black dated Yamout for approximately 6 months before recusing himself from NextEra issues. According to U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) ethics officials, Black’s relationship with Yamout did not require a recusal as a “covered relationship,” but they expressed concern to him numerous times about the appearance of the relationship due to his work in renewable energy. Black resisted a recusal, however, believing that it would interfere with his ability to do his job. Soon after outside sources contacted senior DOI officials about Black’s relationship, ethics staff officially advised Black to recuse himself.
Before Black recused himself from NextEra, he was involved in permitting issues for two NextEra projects with millions of dollars of renewable energy tax credits at stake. He also referred a NextEra solar project to a White House list of priority projects. We found that this occurred right around the time that NextEra transferred Yamout from California to Washington, DC, where Black resided. We did not find evidence, however, that Black influenced this transfer.
Yamout stated that she recused herself from DOI issues at NextEra shortly after she and Black began dating; however, emails show that she continued to have some involvement in NextEra’s DOI-related projects. We did not find evidence that she lobbied DOI employees.
We found that in NextEra emails, company officials sometimes referred to the NextEra attorney/lobbyist’s friendship with Black when discussing project issues and requested the attorney/lobbyist contact Black. None of the Federal employees we interviewed who were involved in permitting, however, reported any evidence of Black giving preferential treatment to the company. In addition, none said they felt pressured to make decisions that specifically benefited the company, and permitting decisions appear to have been assigned to regional personnel, not to Black’s office.
After his recusal, Black accepted items of value, totaling $1,183, from NextEra. These items included hotel rooms and dinners during trips with Yamout while she was conducting NextEra business. After our first interview of Black, he reimbursed NextEra for the expenses.
Regarding Black’s employment discussions with AWEA, a DOI ethics official stated that he did not find that Black violated any regulations on seeking employment since his actions as a DOI official did not appear to directly financially benefit AWEA.
Some FWS and BLM employees relayed concerns about receiving pressure from Black to reexamine their scientific opinions and make unsupportable changes to renewable-energy-related projects. We documented those concerns in our report.
Black resigned from DOI in May 2013. We brought these issues to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for review; the Office declined to prosecute the case. We referred this report to the Secretary of the Interior for her review and any action deemed appropriate.