Massachusetts energy secretary engaged in Enbridge facility review while negotiating job with project’s consultant

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Image credit: Mass. Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs, CC BY-NC 2.0

While still in office, Massachusetts’ former energy and environmental secretary Matthew Beaton, who recently left his post for the private sector, took part in discussions about a natural gas project involving his new employer, DeSmog has found.

According to documents obtained through an open records request, former secretary Matthew Beaton participated in a meeting and received briefings on Enbridge’s planned natural gas compressor station project in Weymouth near Boston after he began negotiating a transition to a job with TRC Companies, the project’s main environmental consultant.

Beaton, who Governor Charlie Baker appointed secretary of the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) in early 2015, abruptly left the administration on May 1 this year. He took a position as vice president at TRC, a large environmental firm whose clientele includes the oil, gas, and utility industries.

Text ethics

A text message between Beaton and TRC’s president and CEO Chris Vincze from mid-March this year indicates Beaton had been planning his departure from at least that point — and likely earlier.

In the message, Beaton sought information concerning ethics issues, wondering whether he needs to disclose his negotiations with TRC. “Hey there. Question,” Beaton texted Vincze on March 18. “Are you aware of any TRC direct matters that may or have ever come before me at EEA? Obviously there are some interactions with some of our agencies but I have been told that direct count.”

He consulted with a number of lawyers and the ethics guidelines, Beaton continued, but “don’t think I need to file any disclosure because I can’t think of any dealings I have ever had directly with TRC in my capacity as secretary.”

“Let me think about it, but I think you are correct,” Vincze texted back.

The next day, Vincze texted Beaton again, saying that other than some direct discussions between TRC and Beaton in the early days of the Baker administration, “you’re good to go.”

“Any updates on departure strategy?” Vincze added.

After this exchange, Beaton continued to serve as secretary for another six weeks.DOCUMENTPAGESTEXTZoom

Sec. Beaton and the compressor station

Internal EEA emails indicate that during that timeframe, Beaton participated in several matters concerning the compressor station, a highly controversial project that has recently landed the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in hot water over its withholding of air pollution data as part of the air quality permitting, a revelation which was made public in a DeSmog investigation.

The DEP under Beaton provided Enbridge with an air permit in January this year, an authorization that is currently under appeal.

On April 2, Beaton had a conference call about the compressor station with Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.

That call likely involved issues relating to public safety because it included the state’s Secretary of Public Safety Thomas Turco.

Then, on several occasions during April, Beaton was copied on email briefings about an audit carried out by his DEPconcerning a soil inspection of the compressor site which TRC conducted. That audit faulted TRC with several deficiencies, including a mischaracterization of toxic coal ash on the site as “historical fill.”

DEP ordered TRC and Enbridge to correct these shortcomings and issue a new analysis and remediation plan for the site by next month.

TRC’s Vincze, a Republican, has close ties to Governor Baker. In 2016 the governor endorsed Vincze’s wife, Janet, when she ran for the state’s Republican Committee. According to state campaign finance records, the Vinczes donated a total of $6,500 to Baker since 2010, while TRC employees gave the governor nearly $30,000 in that timeframe.

According to EEA spokesperson Katie Gronendyke, “Secretary Beaton sought guidance from the State Ethics Commission and took actions consistent with this guidance.”

TRC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Suspicions of possible conflicts of interest

A billboard opposing the Weymouth natural gas compressor station
A billboard opposing Enbridge’s proposed Weymouth gas compressor station. Credit: Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station, used with permission 

After Beaton’s departure, activists opposing the compressor station asked the State Ethics Commission for documents relating to his transition, suspecting potential conflicts of interest.

“We are a bit stunned that Secretary Beaton would throw himself into such an obvious ethical conundrum,” Alice Arena, who heads the group Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station (FRRACS), said at the time of Beaton’s departure.

A month before Beaton texted with TRC’s Vincze, Arena and other opponents of the station met with him and provided documents related to their opposition to the project.

To date, the State Ethics Commission has not produced for the group any documents on Beaton’s departure.

Massachusetts’ ethics laws prohibit state employees from participating in matters where they may benefit financially as they seek prospective employment, unless their duties required so and they had advised their appointing officer and the State Ethics Commission along with a full disclosure of the financial interest.

According to records obtained from Governor Baker’s office, Beaton did not file a disclosure relating to his communications with TRC. The State Ethics Commission’s publicly available documents do not list any disclosure from Beaton either.

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