Chatterjee lands another political appointee

Source: Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Michael Smith has the sort of early career a lot of young people who come to Washington, D.C., would covet.

Less than five years since graduating from the University of Tulsa, Smith in October was designated a “Schedule C” political appointee and named as policy adviser to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee.

He has a lengthy list of duties in the role, according to his job description obtained by E&E News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Chief among them is being the liaison between the chairman’s office and the Office of External Affairs.

His office is in the FERC External Affairs suite, not in the chairman’s suite.

Smith came to Washington after graduating in 2014 with a degree in political science and the classics. He worked for six months in the office of former home-state Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), where he was a staff assistant handling legislative correspondence on foreign policy, defense and veterans affairs, according to his resume.

Then in January of 2015, Smith landed a job as an assistant in the Senate Republican cloakroom, where he had multiple responsibilities, including managing the Senate pages and reminding senators when they had to be on the Senate floor to vote.

His post at FERC is quite different.

Smith is supposed to advise Chatterjee and his staff on congressional matters, relations with state and local governments, and public relations.

The knowledge required for the position, according to the job description, includes “pertinent laws, regulations, policies and precedents applying to the Commission” and also knowledge of the major goals and objectives of “FERC organizations to carry out projects and studies.”

Smith also is expected to perform special studies and prepare papers on “matters of particular concern to the Chairman.”

Policy adviser

Chatterjee has one other person in his office with the same job title of policy adviser — Andrea Spring.

Spring, a 1996 graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School with a master’s degree in public policy, did her undergraduate work at Yale University.

Spring has been at FERC for nearly eight years and was for almost five years deputy director of the Office of External Affairs.

Beforehand, she was on the staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and spent nearly seven years as director of legislative affairs for the Electric Power Supply Association.

It is unclear from FOIA documents how Smith’s appointment to FERC occurred, specifically if Chatterjee knew him when he was a senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) before being nominated to FERC.

FERC withheld eight intra- and interagency emails and accompanying documents among government officials that pertain to preliminary discussions on the hiring of Smith.

Smith’s supervisor is FERC Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese, another political appointee and the first to be named chief of staff at the independent agency.

Since the role began in 2004, FERC chiefs of staff have shared three characteristics: They were attorneys (except for two), had years of experience either working at FERC or in the private sector on issues before the commission, and were civil servants.

Pugliese came to FERC in September 2017 after a stint at the Department of Transportation as a “Senior White House Advisor,” according to his LinkedIn page.

Before that, he worked for Pugliese Associates, a Pennsylvania lobbying firm started by his father that focuses on regulatory and legislative consulting.

He gained unwanted attention last summer when he did an interview with a Breitbart News Network radio host that slammed Democrats and praised President Trump.

Weeks later, his remarks to a nuclear industry meeting prompted congressional Democrats to express concern to then-Chairman Kevin McIntyre that Pugliese “has been making public statements that call into question his impartiality and independence from political pressure.”

The lawmakers referenced Pugliese saying that FERC was working with Trump administration officials at the Department of Energy and the National Security Council to identify which power plants are “critical” to the power grid in furtherance of a controversial plan to provide such plants financial support.

More light shed on recent Chatterjee hire

Another relatively new political appointee is John Umberger, who in December joined Chatterjee’s staff as his executive assistant.

He came to FERC as a self-described “presidential appointee,” according to his LinkedIn page, and a certified trainer at a Washington fitness and wellness center. He is an advocate of Gyrokinesis exercise that incorporates a specially designed showerhead as a therapy device.

According to his online bio, the Georgia native previously worked as an assistant at Williams & Jensen PLLC, a law firm that bills itself as “Washington’s lobbying powerhouse.”

Umberger also had a few short-term jobs related to politics, including House and Senate internships and a three-month stint with Trump’s inaugural committee.

FERC officials in January declined to say how Chatterjee knew Umberger and/or whether the White House placed Umberger at FERC.

“To get answers to your questions you will have to file a [Freedom of Information Act request],” FERC said.

The March 12 response to a subsequent E&E News FOIA also did not answer the questions, saying the agency was withholding 30 intra- and interagency emails and accompanying documents among government officials that pertain to preliminary discussions on the hiring of Umberger.

However, a partially redacted email to a FERC human resources employee confirming Umberger’s Schedule C approval on Oct. 31 showed that the White House Liaison Office at the Office of Personnel Management was copied on the approval notification.

Asked again on Friday if Chatterjee knew Umberger or if the White House played a role in his getting th