Former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu's dual career as a contributing op-ed writer for The Boston Globe and an advisor to a lobbying firm is raising ethical questions.
A review of Sununu's columns reveals that they have not contained disclosures about his ties to lobbying giant Akin Gump, where he serves as a “senior policy advisor.” Indeed, Sununu has written about issues related to Akin Gump's lobbying without disclosing his role in the firm.
Sununu joined Akin Gump in July 2010, in a role the firm originally described as “adjunct senior policy advisor.” A press release explained that “Sununu will advise clients on a wide range of public policy, strategic and regulatory issues.” Akin Gump's website now identifies Sununu as a “senior policy advisor” and lists his areas of practice as “policy and regulation,” “financial services policy” and “public law and policy.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Akin Gump earned about $28 million from lobbying last year.
In response to inquiries from Media Matters, the Globe's editorial page editor described Sununu's role with the lobbying firm as “very limited” and added that he was not aware of any instance in which a Sununu column referenced any “specific case involving Akin Gump.”
On at least two occasions in 2011, Sununu's columns supported causes related to Akin Gump's lobbying.
* A September 19, 2011, Globe column, in which Sununu praised the America Invents Act, a patent reform bill that passed congress and was signed into law by President Obama. He wrote:
The long-suffering patent bar finally had its day recently when President Obama signed the America Invents Act. Six years in the making, the new law was complicated, technical, non-partisan, and the product of serious negotiation. As a result, it received almost no coverage in the popular media. But it is as important to American innovation as any tax cut or “jobs” bill.
The bill involves some tradeoffs. “First to file,'' for instance, may bring about certainty, but some worry it could benefit larger corporations with ready cash to pay filing fees. The overall result, however, should be a better system: More certain and less expensive protection for inventors, and much less frustration for patent lawyers. That's something we all can celebrate, even if no one hears about it.
Akin Gump lobbied for the Coalition for 21st Century Patent Reform, and, according to lobbying disclosure filings, they focused specifically on the “America Invents Act (S. 23 and H.R. 1249), including provisions regarding post-grant, first-inventor-to-file, business method patents, false marking and USPTO funding and fee diversions.” In a September press release, the Coalition hailed the passage of the America Invents Act as “a great achievement for the Congress and Administration.”
* A July 11, 2011, column, titled, “Smart fracking,” in which Sununu specifically advocated hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Marcellus shale, a rock formation targeted for its natural gas reserves.
Enlightened moments in politics are few and far between. Populism has a lot to do with it; playing to fear, anger, and other emotions is a safe move politically, and what the media love most.
That's why New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's decision to lift a ban on hydraulic fracturing - also known as “fracking'' - should be celebrated as a victory for rational thought. His administration is now preparing regulations allowing access to 85 percent of the shale gas beneath the state. This has members of the hard-core environmental lobby gnashing their teeth. Their dramatic, and often misleading, claims drove last year's ban in the first place. Cuomo's move also strikes a blow for states' rights and encourages a balanced approach to energy policy - and highlights some cool engineering as well.
About five years ago, however, improvements in horizontal drilling finally came together with better simulation and monitoring of crack growth to make the entire process a big economic winner.
The results have been dramatic for production of both oil and gas. During the past three years, proven reserves of shale gas have more than tripled. Estimates of recoverable reserves in the United States have soared to over 800 trillion cubic feet - roughly 35 times America's annual consumption - from shale gas alone. North Dakota's Bakken oil field, a marginal producer five years ago, now pumps 400,000 barrels per day. And yet the full potential of reserves such as the Marcellus shale beneath Pennsylvania and New York still haven't been fully measured.
Akin Gump lobbied on behalf of oil giant Chevron throughout 2011 on “issues and legislative policies relating to the environmental regulation of business sectors, including oil and gas; issues relating to climate change; issues relating to taxation of oil and gas.” Through the first three quarters of the year, Akin Gump reported $270,000 in lobbying income from Chevron.
Reuters reported that: “Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, became heavily involved in the huge Marcellus shale region centered on Pennsylvania through its purchase last year of Atlas Energy and a recent acreage deal with Chief Oil & Gas.”
Akin Gump also lobbied on behalf of Hess on “energy legislation affecting oil and gas production, motor fuels and related issues.” Akin Gump reported that it received $300,000 in the first three quarters of 2011 from Hess for lobbying.
Hess' website explains that “Hess has leased 52,900 acres in the Marcellus, mainly in northern Wayne County, PA, as a sole operator. We have an interest in another 74,000 acres in Wayne County as a 50/50 partner with Newfield Exploration, where Newfield is the operator. Hess currently plans to drill four to six vertical exploration wells this year.” Their 2010 annual report notes that they drilled “three vertical exploration wells in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania.”
Later in the year, Akin Gump issued a press release noting that they had advised CONSOL Energy Inc. on a transaction involving “115,647 net acres of the Marcellus Shale located in nine counties in southwestern Pennsylvania and north-central West Virginia in exchange for $193 million in cash.”
Sununu's precise role at the firm is unclear. In a statement to Media Matters, Globe editorial page editor Peter Canellos said that Sununu's “work at Akin Gump is very limited -- he mainly advises them on potential clients in New Hampshire.” Canellos added that the paper would ask Sununu to disclose his ties if one of his columns ever referred “to a specific case involving Akin Gump”:
John E. Sununu and his editor closely monitor his columns for conflicts of interest and disclose them when they occur. His work at Akin Gump is very limited -- he mainly advises them on potential clients in New Hampshire. If he were in any position to benefit from matters he writes about, we would disclose that fact. It has been pointed out to us that Akin Gump does work that touches on a broad range of issues in Washington, but Sununu is not a partner in the firm, not a lawyer, and has no involvement or financial interest in those efforts. If, however, one of his columns were to refer to a specific case involving Akin Gump, we would ask him to make mention of his tie to the firm. I'm not aware of any column that touches on such a case, but if you know of one, let me know and we will deal with it accordingly. ... We have had other inquiries about his ties to Akin Gump, and taken them seriously. We looked into whether he should make some sort of blanket disclosure, but it doesn't seem warranted by the small amount of work he does for the firm.
Sununu's Akin Gump biography, however, states that he “advises clients on a wide range of public policy, strategic and regulatory issues.”
In a 2010 interview, Sununu, who did not respond to multiple Media Matters requests for comment, broadly outlined his role at Akin Gump:
My work at Akin Gump, in many ways, compliments the work that I do with PRTM, an operations consulting firm for high-tech companies. Akin Gump has a breadth of practice areas and geographical coverage that allows me to leverage my technical background and business experience across a range of interesting clients and challenging problems in areas where I have both private-sector and public-sector experience, such as telecom, financial services and energy. Not only are these very competitive industries, but also ones that face an economic landscape that is often shaped by regulatory and public policy decisions.
In a statement to Media Matters, an Akin Gump spokesperson said that Sununu “is an independent consultant with Akin Gump, and with other entities. Additionally, he is a media commentator and is also engaged in other endeavors. Accordingly, the columns he writes for the Boston Globe are independent of Akin Gump.”
Political ethics watchdogs found the Globe's lack of disclosure troubling. “Sununu should have a tag line running at the bottom of all his columns, disclosing his affiliation with Akin Gump,” Mary Boyle, a vice president of Common Cause, said in an email. “Even if he's not writing specifically about Akin Gump or one of its cases, his affiliation in the industry is relevant.”
Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division, told Media Matters that it is “in the public's interest to know” about Sununu's ties to the lobbying industry and that someone in his position “should disclose that.”
Some journalism experts were satisfied with the Globe's explanation. Tim McGuire, a journalism instructor at Arizona State University and former editor of The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, wrote in an email to Media Matters, “It sounds like the Globe is very attentive to the ethics issue and is addressing it on a column by column basis. That's all I could expect.”
In an email, former Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander commented: “Assuming the Globe's statement is accurate -- and I have no reason to think otherwise -- it appears that Sununu is only loosely tied to Akin Gump and that he has had no involvement with clients who had an interest in the issues addressed in his columns. For that reason, it doesn't appear that an actual conflict of interest exists.”
Other experts disagreed.
Kevin Smith, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, pointed to the apparent contradiction between the Globe's statement that Sununu's Akin Gump role is mainly limited to advising the firm “on potential clients in New Hampshire,” and Sununu's bio on Akin Gump's website, which says he “advises clients on a wide range of public policy, strategic and regulatory issues.”
“Given the discrepancies, I'd prefer to always err on the side of caution,” Smith wrote in an email. “More time has been spent explaining the Globe's inaction than it would have taken to tag the column with a disclaimer. Help the reader out. It's that simple. We are in the business of truth telling. If reporting the connection allows the readers to develop a broader scope of understanding regarding the columnist's views, then why wouldn't a news outlet want to tell that? It just seems like good reporting to disclose information.”
Tom Fiedler, former Miami Herald editor and currently dean of the College of Communication at Boston University, also believes the Globe should disclose Sununu's Akin Gump role.
“The Globe statement and policy appears to be an appropriate response, although it would seem prudent to require Sununu to insert a disclaimer into every column he writes alerting readers to potential intersections (I'll avoid the word 'conflict') between his opinion on an issue and Akin Gump's interest,” wrote Fiedler.
“As for Akin Gump's response, there is an inherent contradiction in the firm's statement that Sununu can simultaneously be both a paid consultant and 'independent.' It's highly unlikely he would remain a paid consultant if his 'independent' published opinions clashed with Akin Gump's client's interests.
”As Judge Learned Hand said, sunshine is the best disinfectant."