President Joe Biden’s Clean Energy Future Plan takes former President Donald Trump to task for “irresponsible trade policies and consistent siding with oil lobbyists over American growers.” But one of Biden’s own top State Department nominees, Jose Fernandez, previously worked for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and oil giants like Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, and the multinational oil and gas company SK E&P, his financial disclosure forms reveal. Once confirmed, Fernandez will be charged with leading the State Department’s environmental and “economic growth” policies abroad.
Fernandez, who in March was officially nominated to be the undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, provided “legal services” to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund while he was a partner at the law firm Gibson Dunn. He also disclosed that he has done separate legal work for a number of oil companies and owns stock in fossil fuel companies like Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Sempra Energy, and the Southern Company.
But these publicly available disclosure forms—which only require officials to disclose clients they had over the past year—provide an insufficient view into the true nature of their activities, said Elias Alsbergas of the Revolving Door Project, a group that tracks the private sector conflicts of elected officials. The State Department declined to comment on questions about Fernandez’s previous work or potential conflicts of interest.
Gibson Dunn was a registered lobbyist for the government of Saudi Arabia for years, and didn’t stop lobbying against US legislation on behalf of the kingdom until 2018, when international uproar over the disappearance and assassination of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi forced companies to reconsider their business ties. Recently, the Biden administration has been under immense pressure to push Saudi Arabia to end its blockade on Yemen, as well as ending all forms of US support for the Saudi war effort, which have exacerbated the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The law firm is also notorious for leading Chevron’s unprecedented legal battle against Steven Donziger, the human rights lawyer who won a multibillion-dollar judgement against the company and became its political prisoner as a result, trapped in house arrest awaiting trial.
Before working at Gibson Dunn, Fernandez served as assistant secretary of state for economic, energy, and business affairs during the Obama administration. Now, like many other high-ranking officials on Biden’s foreign policy team, Fernandez is reentering government without having to answer for any of his work in the shadowy corporate world.
“I think it has to do with how this private sector work—consulting for these clients or providing legal services to Saudi Arabia—how that is going to shape your worldview about issues pertaining to your former clients,” Alsbergas said. “How could you ever expect someone who was paid by an arm of a foreign country to then, once he’s in government, respond to the public pressure to distance ourselves from this very controversial nation?”
Alsbergas emphasized that Biden’s State Department, and administration more broadly, is rife with corporate conflicts of interest. In addition to Fernandez’s business ties to Saudi Arabia and the fossil fuel industry, a number of State Department officials have financial ties to Big Tech, the pharmaceutical industry, and consulting firms. These personnel choices, and the refusal to revamp our current ethics laws or increase transparency, are at odds with many of progressive policy goals the administration claims to support. On some domestic issues, Biden has governed to the left of what many political observers were expecting. But when it comes to the United States as a global empire, or Washington’s revolving door, it’s business as usual.
In 2017, Secretary of State Antony Blinken himself cofounded a secretive Washington consulting firm, WestExec Advisors, that offered clients access to an impressive roster of connected officials, all veterans of the Obama administration. WestExec recruited people like Avril Haines, who helped design Obama’s drone program and is now the director of national intelligence under Biden, and Michele Flournoy, Obama’s Pentagon policy chief. Current White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki worked for WestExec as well. Loopholes in lobbying disclosure rules allowed WestExec to keep most of their corporate clients under wraps, but some officials’ financial disclosure forms this year exposed some of the firm’s clients: Blackstone, Facebook, the pharmaceutical company Gilead, and Bank of America, among others.
“Every Biden-Harris administration nominee goes through a robust process with agency ethics officials and the Office of Government Ethics to disclose, identify, and resolve potential conflicts of interest,” a White House official told The Nation. “If any conflicts are identified, nominees address those through recusals, divestments, or resignations, which are memorialized in a nominee’s ethics agreement.”
Financial disclosure forms also show that Wendy Sherman, who holds the State Department’s number two post; Victoria Nuland, Biden’s nominee for the department’s number three position; Uzra Zeya, a former diplomat and recent nominee to the department; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US’s new ambassador to the United Nations—all did some sort of consulting work with the Albright Stonebridge Group, a geopolitical strategy firm. Thomas-Greenfield was a senior vice president of the group.
“Many of these individuals are very intelligent and know how these disclosures work,” Alsbergas added. “I wouldn’t put it past someone like Tony Blinken, who founded WestExec, to strategically turn down clients a year before 2020 to start offloading some of his political risk.”