Tuesday, February 21, 2023

As scandal continues to boil around Southern Company and related entities, a new question arises: Who is Kristine L. Svinicki, and why does she matter?

Kristine Svinicki (Getty Images)

Kristine L. Svinicki, former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC),  joined the Southern Company board of directors in October 2021. In making that move, did Svinicki run afoul of so-called federal "revolving door" laws. Why do the laws exist, and what do they mean for Svinicki's tenure with Southern Company? Donald Watkins, longtime Alabama attorney and businessman -- and a central figure in a multi-pronged effort to expose alleged wrongdoing at Southern Company and related entities -- addresses those questions in an article today at his Web site, donaldwatkins.com. Under the headline "Who is Kristine L. Svinicki, and why does she matter?" Watkins writes:

An employee or member of a federal regulatory agency who participated personally and substantially in a particular matter involving a specific party (e.g., grants, contracts, licenses, permits, applications, litigation, etc.), may never appear before or communicate on behalf of another with any federal department, agency, or court regarding that same particular matter. See, 18 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). This is a lifetime restriction.

For particular matters involving specific parties under the employee's or agency member’s official responsibility during his/her last year of government service, the employee or member of a federal regulatory agency is restricted for two years after he/she leaves government service from appearing before and/or communicating on behalf of another with any federal department, agency, or court regarding those same particular matters. See, 18 U.S.C. § 207(a)(2).

 What is the purpose behind these statutes? Watkins explains:

These post-government employment restrictions are commonly known as “revolving door” restrictions. They are designed to prevent influence peddling within federal agencies by management-level employees and members of federal regulatory agencies who depart their government positions for high-paying cushy jobs with the very companies they interacted with in their capacity as government officials.

These "revolving door" restrictions are embodied within Title 5, Chapter XVI, Subchapter B, Part 2641 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

That brings us to our question of the moment: Who is Kristine L. Svinicki, and why does she matter? Writes Watkins:

On March 28, 2008, President George W. Bush appointed Ms. Kristine Svinicki as a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). She served as a Commissioner under three U.S. presidents, thereby becoming the NRC’s longest-serving Commissioner.

On January 23, 2017, President Donald J. Trump appointed Ms. Svinicki as Chairwoman of the NRC.

On January 20, 2021, Ms. Svinicki announced her departure from the NRC on the eve of Joe Biden’s swearing-in as the 46th president of the United States.

Ms. Svinicki has decades of public-service experience with a distinguished career as a nuclear engineer and policy advisor, working at the state and federal levels of government, and in both the legislative and executive branches.

The record indicates Svinicki was an accomplished and valued government employee for 13 years. But her post-government activities are what matter to us now, and they raise important questions, such as this one: Is Svinicki Involved in Influencing Peddling at the Southern Company? Writes Watkins:

On October 18, 2021, some ten months after she retired from the NRC, Ms. Svinicki was appointed to the board of directors of the Southern Company. According to the Southern Company’s website, Ms. Svinicki’s “leadership skills as the former Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and her expertise as a nuclear engineer and policy advisor are valuable to our Board.”

In its own words, the Southern Company added Ms. Svinicki to its board of directors, in part, because she was the former Chairwoman of the NRC and a policy advisor on nuclear energy for various federal entities in Washington, DC.

Ms. Svinicki's board appointment appears to be a classic example of influence peddling by the parent company of Georgia Power Company and Southern Nuclear Operating Company. These Southern Company affiliates hold NRC-issued licenses as the “owner” and “operator” of the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant in Waynesboro, Georgia.

There are thousands of highly qualified nuclear engineers in America. There are scores of individuals with nuclear-policy advisory experience that is comparable to Ms. Svinicki's. However, there is only one person who served as chairperson of the NRC from 2017 to 2021.

We also have this question: How much is Southern Company paying Ms. Svinicki? Watkins addresses that:

Ms. Svinicki’s compensation as a Southern Company board member has not been made publicly available for 2021 or 2022. However, the published compensation for other board members shows that they earned up to $365,000 in compensation in 2021, as was case for the Southern Company's lead independent board member, Mr. David J. Grain.

In 2021, the cash portion of Mr. Grain's compensation was $205,000. His stock award for 2021 was valued at $160,000. The Southern Company board of director's position is a part-time job for Mr. Grain.

Ms. Svinicki’s reported base salary as the chairwoman of the NRC in 2020 was $183,100.

That tells us going from government service to a position as board member for a major corporation likely involves a nice bump in salary. But Svinicki's situation is complicated by the recent filing of NRC complaints against Southern Company, Watkins reports:

On February 3, 2023, several individuals and organizations filed complaints with the NRC against the Southern Company. The complaints challenge the "fitness" of the Southern Company’s affiliates – Southern Nuclear Operating Company and Georgia Power Company -- to hold NRC-issued licenses as the owner and operator of the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant.

The complaints allege that the Southern Company and its affiliates have run an interstate criminal racketeering enterprise for many years. The complaints mirror the allegations of related complaints that were filed against the Southern Company with the U.S. Department of Justice's Criminal Division on January 27, 2023.

One national organization -- Consejo de Latinos Unidos, Inc. (CDLU) – is demanding the revocation of these NRC licenses. CDLU wants a qualified and capable third-party administrator to operate Vogtle.

The extent to which Ms. Svinicki may be participating or assisting in the Southern Company’s defense of these NRC-issued licenses is unknown. What is known, however, is that Ms. Svinicki serves on the board of director’s committee for Business Security and Resiliency and Operations, Environmental and Safety. The pending DOJ and NRC complaints fall within the scope of this board committee’s assigned area of responsibility.

Against this backdrop, there are several burning questions about Ms. Svinicki’s service on the board of directors.

 What are those questions? Watkins spells them out:

1. Did Ms. Svinicki’s appointment to the Southern Company’s board of directors on October 18, 2021, violate the federal statutory and Code of Federal Regulations restrictions on “revolving door” business relationships?

2. Has Ms. Svinicki communicated with any NRC Commissioner, NRC employee, or any director or employee of another federal agency on any matter related to the Southern Company since she became a board member on October 18, 2021?

3. Based upon the totality of facts and circumstances, was Ms. Svinicki appointed to the board of directors for the primary purpose of favorably influencing NRC or U.S. Department of Energy decisions involving the Southern Company?

4. Did the business relationship between the Southern Company and Ms. Svinicki constitute a "real" or "apparent" conflict of interest when she was appointed to the company’s board of directors on October 18, 2021?

5. If so, did the designated NRC ethics officer and/or Board of Commissioners waive this "real" or "apparent" conflict of interest prior to Ms. Svinicki's board appointment?

Stay tuned! Much more Southern Company transparency is coming your way from independent journalists in the Southeast who are working on this developing story.


legalschnauzer said...

The statute cited in the second paragraph provides an example of how the revolving-door law might apply:

Example 1:

A Program Analyst works on a lawsuit involving Q
Company. After leaving Federal service, the former
employee accepts a job with a consulting firm that has Q
Company as a client. She is asked by the consulting firm to
represent it before the Environmental Protection Agency in
connection with that same lawsuit.

She may not do so. For life, she may only represent the
United States before an Executive Branch or Judicial
Branch agency on this matter.

legalschnauzer said...

Questions that come to my mind:

Did Southern Company know Ms. Svinicki likely had a problem with the revolving-door statute, but they appointed her to board of directors anyway?

Did Ms. Svinicki know she likely had a problem with the law, but she accepted the position anyway.

Are they counting on decision-makers to look the other way and allow the law to be violated?