Wolf aide married to gas industry lobbyist may be violating Pa.’s ethics law
When anti-fracking activist Scott Cannon’s invitation to serve on Governor Tom Wolf’s Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force was rescinded last July, emails soon surfaced showing Gov. Wolf’s special assistant, Yesenia Bane, asking the state Department of Environmental Protection to uninvite him.
The move created a stir among environmental activists.
It’s still not clear why the activist was kicked out. But questions are being raised about Ms. Bane and her husband’s personal financial stake in Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry, and whether she could be running afoul of state ethics law.
A review of Yesenia Bane’s 2016 daily schedule by StateImpact Pennsylvania reveals she’s frequently involved in matters related to her husband’s clients and their business interests.
Until recently, John Bane worked as a lobbyist with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Harrisburg. He represented dozens of firms, including key players in the oil and gas industry. Among his clients were gas driller EQT, refiner Philadelphia Energy Solutions, and pipeline company Williams.
Last month he joined EQT full time as a senior government relations manager.
Traveling the state
While Yesenia Bane works on a broad array of issues as Wolf’s special assistant, she’s been heavily involved in Marcellus Shale issues, including new drilling regulations, pipeline projects, Philadelphia’s energy hub, and the ethane cracker Shell is building near Pittsburgh. She is among Wolf’s highest-paid aides, earning $110,005 a year.
Her schedule was obtained through a Right-to-Know request and heavily redacted in some places.
But it still shows dozens of formal meetings on oil and gas issues, as well as informal dinners, lunches, and coffee meet-ups with industry representatives.
Some of the meetings involved her husband’s clients’ projects.
In June she took part in a meeting about Williams’ Atlantic Sunrise project —a new $3 billion gas pipeline planned to run through parts of central Pennsylvania. The attendees are listed as the DEP secretary, two of her husband’s colleagues from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, and a pair of representatives from Williams.
In September, Yesenia Bane was on a panel discussion about pipelines at the annual Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh, hosted by the gas trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition. She said Gov. Wolf is open to lobbying his counterpart, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), to grant regulatory approvals to the Constitution pipeline—another controversial project of her husband’s then-client, Williams.
Ms. Bane has also traveled around the state to tour some of the facilities operated by her husband’s clients — visiting an EQT drilling rig in Greene County and the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refining complex.
Earlier this year, Wolf appointed John Bane to an advisory council on hunting, fishing and conservation.
Ms. Bane wouldn’t comment for this story, despite repeated attempts to contact her. Her husband referred questions to EQT media spokespeople.
“She should be recusing herself”
Pennsylvania’s ethics law precludes public officials from using their office for private financial gain to benefit themselves, immediate family members, or businesses with which immediate family members are associated.
Robert Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission wouldn’t comment on Ms. Bane, but he says generally, public officials should stay away from taking any official action that could result in a private gain for themselves or a family member.
“An official action can involve a vote, making recommendations, or participating in discussions and giving an opinion that would lead to an action benefiting the business the spouse is involved with,” he says.
But, Barry Kauffman of the government reform group, Common Cause of Pennsylvania, sees a potential problem with Bane’s situation.
“She should probably be recusing herself from any activities which involve her husband’s business,” he says.
Kauffman says these kinds of relationships—between lobbyists and public officials—are unfortunately common.
“It’s not just in the governor’s office. It’s a problem throughout government,” he says. “Many of these people are on a pretty slippery slope.”
“She has not violated any rules”
A spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf declined several interview requests to discuss how the administration handles the matter.
In an email, Jeff Sheridan said Yesenia Bane has recused herself at times and frequently consults with legal counsel to ensure she’s following the law, but he did not provide specific details.
“She has not violated any rules whatsoever,” writes Sheridan. “In fact, there is no appearance of any violation.”
Mr. Bane’s current and former employers agree they have adhered to ethical standards.
“There was not an actual or perceived conflict of interest at that time [he worked for Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney], nor is there one now,” says Linda Robertson, and EQT spokeswoman. “Mr. Bane’s position does not require or depend on interaction with the position of special assistant in the governor’s office.”
A Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney spokeswoman says the firm respects and adheres to applicable ethics law and regulation.