Drain the Swamp? Mike McKenna, Head of Trump Energy Team, Began Lobbying Career with Ethics Scandal

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Mike McKenna, named to head the U.S. Department of Energy transition team for President-Elect Donald Trump, began his lobbying career in the aftermath of an ethics scandal in Virginia.

Before resigning from the administration of Virginia's then-Governor George Allen in 1997, McKenna was implicated in the authorship and distribution of what the Associated Press called a “dirty tricks” memo written in response to a report published by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), which had critiqued the Department of Environmental Quality for which McKenna had then served as policy director and spokesman.

McKenna now works as a lobbyist for a firm he founded named MWR Strategies

According to federal lobbying disclosure forms, McKenna currently lobbies for companies such as Southern Company, Koch Industries, GDF Suez and Dow Chemical. Past clients have included corporations such as utility giant American Electric Power, pipeline company El Paso and the National Petrochemical Refiners Association.

The Trump transition team's hiring of McKenna comes just weeks after Trump announced his “drain the swamp” campaign promise. “Drain the Swamp” centered around getting rid of the enormous influence of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. and was a popular talking point on the campaign trail for Trump. 

Trump Drain the Swamp

Image Credit: Donald J. Trump Presidential Campaign Website

Mike McKenna's Dirty Tricks

The McKenna “dirty tricks” memo called for the use of government resources to discredit the conclusions made in the JLARC report “such as threatening a libel suit or a congressional inquiry,” according to The Washington Post. JLARC's report had critiqued DEQ for not being harsh enough on regulating industrial pollution and water quality regulations.

“The memo, dated Dec. 20 and written by Michael McKenna, the department's director of external affairs, also suggests that the agency file a Freedom of Information Act request for any correspondence between the legislative panel and the media,” reported The Post. “McKenna said the request should be filed 'under our names, so they know we're the ones coming after them.'” 

McKenna's boss at the time of the memo's authorship was Becky Norton Dunlop, who in 1998 began working at the Heritage Foundation where she still works currently as a Senior Fellow. McKenna's father, James T. McKenna, served as an attorney for Heritage during its formative years in the 1970s. 

In the aftermath of the incident, McKenna left and became a lobbyist for the firm Baise & Miller. Upon discovering this, Governor Allen ordered his DEQ staff to have no discussion with McKenna. 

McKenna “potentially could be acting in a position adverse to his former employer – the taxpayers of Virginia. Given this potential problem, any direct communication would be professionally irresponsible on the part of both parties,” wrote Allen in a letter to DEQ staff, according to The Washington Post

Watchdog environmental groups also took McKenna to task for utilizing the revolving door for private career gain.

“He has been hired because of his particular knowledge and expertise at the DEQ, and he is now using it for his personal gain,” said Deanna Sampson, executive director of the Virginia Conservation Network at the time. “It may be legal, but it doesn't seem right that he would take the training and experience paid for by taxpayers and then use it arguing against their interest.”

Polling Dirty Tricks

It was under the cloud of this “dirty tricks” scandal that McKenna began his lobbying career. But it wasn't the end of that game for McKenna.

According to the Energy and Policy Institute, MWR Strategies — which also does polling on top of lobbying — distributed and disseminated the results of a misleading poll which purported to show the public was against the clean energy tax credit provision found within the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan. The poll featured unethical leading questions and prompts, such as:

-“The rule will have no effect on what countries like China and India do with respect to global warming.”

-“Under the rule, EPA would be able to tell the States what sources of electricity – coalfired, natural gas-fired, nuclear, or other – they could use.”

-“The tax credit that companies get for generating electricity from wind means that sometimes wind power is used instead of less expensive energy sources like natural gas and coal. When that happens, ratepayers pay more for electricity. In general, do you think that is a good thing or a bad thing?”

Despite obvious bias loaded into each question and prompting, McKenna previously told The Hill he doesn't “doesn’t poll for his lobbying clients” because “there is a potential conflict of interest that could impair the polling data.” Yet that particular poll was disseminated by American Energy Alliance, a front group funded by one of his lobbying clients, Koch Industries.

Drain the Swamp?

Asked about a transition team consisting of a heavy dose of lobbyists on “60 Minutes” after promising to “drain the swamp,” Trump claimed he still supports ethics reforms, but said “everybody's a lobbyist down there” in Washington, D.C. In other words, it's impossible not to hire lobbyists with corporate ties.

“Everything, everything down there– there are no people– there are all people that work – that’s the problem with the system, the system. Right now, we’re going to clean it up,” Trump told “60 Minutes.”

“We’re doing a lot of things to clean up the system. But everybody that works for government, they then leave government and they become a lobbyist, essentially. I mean, the whole place is one big lobbyist. I’m saying that they know the system right now, but we’re going to phase that out. You have to phase it out.”

Will a seasoned corporate lobbyist, such as McKenna, help the proclaimed Trump phase out? In a word: unlikely.

Candidate Trump ran against the establishment. President-Elect Trump has handed over the keys to his administration to the establishment, inviting in corporate lobbyists, corporate lawyers, corporate think tank members and corporate executives to run his transition team,” Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said in a press release introducing a report the group published comparing Trump's campaign rhetoric with his Transition Team deeds.

If things continue on course, we will witness one the most corrupt administrations in American history. The transition team is guided by no apparent ethics code, and no apparent acknowledgement of even the most modest conflict-of-interest standards.”

Photo Credit: YouTube Screenshot

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