Congress

Federal agency ordered to investigate Homeland Security nominee

What happens next may rest with McConnell

What happens to the nomination of William N. Bryan to a senior Department of Homeland Security post may now rest with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell is shown here with Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Todd Young, R-Ind., and John Thune, R-S.D. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Department of Energy has been told to investigate allegations of corruption by William N. Bryan, the White House’s nominee for a senior post at the Department of Homeland Security, CQ Roll Call has learned.

Bryan joins a long line of Trump administration nominees who’ve faced controversy. Just this week, the White House withdrew the nomination of Jeffrey Byard to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

[Issa hearing delayed after dispute over background investigation]

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel told the Energy Department in a letter last month to investigate a whistleblower’s allegations that Bryan used his former position at DOE to funnel business to a private energy company.

The Office of Special Counsel made the referral because it found “a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing,” according to the letter.

The referral “is not a final determination that the allegations are substantiated,” the letter said. “This remains an open matter under investigation until the agency’s final report is forwarded to the President and Congress.”

Bryan, who is currently in an acting role at Homeland Security, denied the allegations to The New York Times last year. His office did not return a request for comment Thursday. The Department of Homeland Security and the Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Investigators contacted the whistleblower, Energy Department official Robert Ivy, on Wednesday to schedule an interview, according to his lawyer, John Tye. Tye is with the nonprofit law firm Whistleblower Aid.

“It would be inappropriate to advance the nomination under these circumstances,” Tye said in an email. “We strongly urge Senators to reject this nominee."

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee reported Bryan out favorably in July, and he has been added to the Senate’s executive calendar. That means that the fate of his nomination rests largely with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

McConnell’s office referred a request for comment to the White House, which did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment Wednesday and Thursday.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the ranking member on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, “wants to see the outcome of the referral,” according to a committee aide. But the nomination is now out of the committee’s hands.

Such referrals from the Office of Special Counsel are rare, according to an agency report. In fiscal year 2017, the agency referred just 60 of the 2,278 disclosures it processed. Out of the 65 referrals that agencies investigated that year, 50 resulted in allegations that were substantiated in whole or in part.

“OSC would need some substantive evidence or support for the disclosure before referring it to an agency head,” said Jason Zuckerman, a Washington lawyer who served as senior legal advisor in the Office of Special Counsel during the Obama administration.

The allegations against Bryan, which were first reported by The New York Times, stem from his time leading an Energy Department team in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015.

Before joining the Energy Department, Bryan spent 17 years in the military, where he worked on infrastructure and energy issues. He spent eight years in the Energy Department, including as a senior advisor in the Office of International Affairs.

Bryan’s team in Ukraine was tasked with helping the country get through the winter as its war with Russia choked off natural gas and coal supplies. But Ivy says Bryan used his role to funnel business to ValueBridge Energy Group, a private company where he also worked.

Bryan held a special employee designation that let him maintain private employment with the energy company while working for the government.

The two jobs overlapped by about six months, but Bryan delayed his work at ValueBridge until after he left the Energy Department in June 2016, according to written answers he gave former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., as part of his confirmation process last year.

While Bryan was working at the Energy Department in 2015, Ukrainian officials, including then-energy minister Volodymyr V. Demchyshyn, raised concerns about his reliance on advice from the Energy Industry Research Center, which has been linked to pro-Russia oligarch Rinat Akhmetov — a claim the center denies.

The Energy Industry Research Center partnered with ValueBridge on a proposal to the U.S. Agency for International Development shortly after Bryan joined the company. A few months after Bryan left the Energy Department, ValueBridge signed a contract to represent Ukraine’s government-owned gas company, Naftogaz.

Bryan has denied steering business to ValueBridge while he worked at the Energy Department, telling The New York Times last year that he “never made a dime off any of the people I knew from the Ukraine, deliberately, because I didn’t want to violate any of the ethics rules.”

Bryan lost money on ValueBridge, he told The Times, and he denied any involvement in the partnership with between ValueBridge and the Energy Industry Research Center.

Bryan and Byard are the latest of many controversial nominations put forward by President Donald Trump.

Byard’s nomination was withdrawn over allegations involving an altercation. Other troubled nominations include Trump’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, who withdrew last April following allegations of alcohol abuse; Robert Weaver, his nominee to lead the Indian Health Service, who withdrew last January after The Wall Street Journal reported that he had misrepresented his past work experience; and Patrick Shanahan, Trump’s pick for defense secretary, who withdrew in June after allegations emerged of domestic violence in his family’s past.

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