IG: Former chairman's release of video snippet may harm integrity of investigative work

WASHINGTON – The inspector general for the Energy Department has concluded that a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission disclosed confidential material from a major investigation during a public conference last March.

That diclosure potentially threatens the integrity of the agency’s regulatory and enforcement work, he said.

Jon Wellinghoff was no longer chairman of the agency when he played a clip at the conference showing an energy trader undergoing questioning.

A Democrat, Wellinghoff was appointed to the commission in 2006 and served as FERC’s chairman from 2009 to 2013. The agency regulates the interstate transmission of natural gas, oil, and electricity.

Wellinghoff, an energy law attorney, says he did nothing wrong. He said the clip was from a closed investigation and did not identify the company that was being investigated. It demonstrated the need for traders to answer questions more forthrightly, he said. He added that he no longer has the clip, but there’s no reason it should be kept from the public or press.

“The IG has got it completely wrong,” Wellinghoff said during a telephone interview.

But the inspector general’s report said FERC’s own general counsel told investigators that Wellinghoff should have known that the deposition was not for public distribution. Investigative materials remain non-public unless ordered released by FERC’s commissioners or through a Freedom of Information Act release, the report said.

“It was clear to us that Mr. Wellinghoff was or should have been fully aware that the public release of the video clip he divulged was inappropriate,” the IG’s report said.

An undisclosed law firm brought the video to FERC’s attention, complaining that the release could have a chilling effect on the willingness of witnesses to provide information in the future.

The inspector general’s report recommended that FERC’s current chairman determine whether Wellinghoff violated confidentiality requirements and to determine what, if any, sanctions are available.

The report also said commissioners should determine whether regulatory or congressional action is needed so that FERC has the authority to sanction former employees who disclose non-public information.

The report said the commission is also taking steps to enhance the guidance given to departing employees on how to handle non-public information they had access to during their time at FERC.