(Bloomberg) — Exxon Mobil Corp. boasts that it drills for oil and gas on six continents and sells fuel and chemicals in almost every country on the planet. That global reach will pose a wealth of conflict-of-interest questions for former CEO Rex Tillerson now that he’s the U.S. secretary of state.
Tillerson, who spent his entire 41-year career at Exxon, cut his financial ties under an ethics agreement after Donald Trump nominated him, giving up deferred stock rights in return for a $180 million cash payout to an independently managed trust. Tillerson also must recuse himself from decisions “directly and substantially related to” his former employer for two years under the president’s ethics order for his appointees.
“He has severed himself in a pretty final and conclusive way, and I just don’t see him being influenced given the structure of his disengagement,” Stan Brand, an ethics lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said in an interview.
Yet the $350 billion company is so big, and so deeply entrenched in countries around the world, that Tillerson’s past will inevitably shadow him, critics say. They say that no ethics agreement can protect against Tillerson viewing the world through “oil-coated glasses,” as Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said this week.
Democrats like Markey and other critics argue that Tillerson, who won Senate confirmation on Wednesday, should recuse himself from decisions related to Exxon for his whole term.
“Some people didn’t like Rex because he actually got along with leaders of the world,” Trump said, referring to such criticism in remarks Thursday at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. “I said, no, you have to understand that’s a good thing. He’s respected all over the world, and I think he’s going to go down as one of our great, great secretaries.”
Russia, Iraq, Mexico
From day one, Tillerson will find his agenda dominated by issues that will directly affect Exxon’s bottom line. Among the most pressing: Trump’s pledge to build better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and perhaps to ease financial sanctions imposed in 2014 that froze the company’s $1 billion exploration project in the remote Kara Sea.
Then there’s the company’s investment in Iraq, where the U.S. is working with the military to fight Islamic State terrorism. In Mexico, a brewing trade war could strain relations after Exxon won the right to explore for deepwater oil.
In Asia, Exxon has partnered with Vietnam to explore in the South China Sea, which China claims as its territory. And globally, the veteran oilman will inherit stewardship of the Paris climate-change accord that Trump has threatened to walk away from.
Ten Democratic senators led by Markey wrote Tillerson that it’s hard to conclude that “you could be an objective participant in decisions that would affect the company’s financial interests.” They cited “your four decades of employment at the company, your personal involvement in securing lucrative deals in Russia, and your previous outspoken opposition to policies such as sanctions that would directly impact” Exxon.
Trump administration officials cited Walter Shaub, the head of the Office of Government Ethics, who called Tillerson’s agreement to sever ties with Exxon a “sterling model.” Under the agreement, Tillerson will give up his rights to restricted Exxon shares and stock units, and the trust will pay him according to the same 10-year schedule over which those stock awards would have vested.
That means he wouldn’t see any financial benefit if he took actions that benefited Exxon.
Tillerson said during his Senate confirmation hearing that he would honor the agreement he reached with the Office of Government Ethics but wouldn’t expect to recuse himself from issues concerning the oil and gas industry generally. He vowed to “serve only the interest of the American people” if confirmed.
Within Exxon, Tillerson’s new job is viewed with ambivalence. At company headquarters in Irving, Texas, managers are concerned the public will see Exxon as having special access or privileges, according to a longtime executive who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Past administrations have confronted similar conflict-of-interest challenges. Hank Paulson sold a $486 million stake in Goldman Sachs, where he had been CEO, before he became treasury secretary. Dick Cheney severed ties to Halliburton Co. when he became vice president, though watchdog groups criticized him and the company after it received government contracts to support U.S. operations in the second Iraq war, which Cheney championed.
As secretary of state, Tillerson will lead a department that frequently worked with — and occasionally battled — his former employer around the world. In his 2012 book about Exxon, “Private Empire,” journalist Steve Coll cites how the State Department lobbied on Exxon’s behalf to win a contract for the Upper Zakum oilfield in the United Arab Emirates. In the end, Exxon felt the department wasn’t doing enough on its behalf and enlisted Cheney’s help.
Tillerson will oversee bureaus that might advocate for or against Exxon. They include the Bureau of Energy Resources, which has promoted U.S. companies overseas and advises secretaries on energy security. The bureau oversees the Energy Governance Capacity Initiative, which helps countries manage their resources properly. One of those countries is Guyana, where Exxon has a 45% stake in a 1.4 billion-barrel oil field.
“The proportion of Tillerson’s job that would have the appearance of conflict is just enormous,” said David Arkush, the managing director for Public Citizen’s climate program. “If someone has to recuse himself from that many matters, he has no business being in that role.”
The State Department may also be asked to weigh in on legal cases involving Exxon. In the African nation of Chad, Exxon is disputing a $74 billion fine for underpaying royalties. Its tax returns are under audit in several countries, including Angola, Nigeria, Qatar and Russia, according to its 2016 annual report.
It’s also embroiled in a lawsuit in Washington over accusations of human-rights abuses in Indonesia, allegations Exxon denies. In the coming months, Tillerson’s State Department may be called upon to approve visas for plaintiffs and witnesses to come testify against the company.
Tillerson, who was awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin, has made clear that he sees success as a matter of cultivating rapport one-on-one.
“All things come down to your personal relationships in any country where you’re going to make significant commitments,” Tillerson told Charlie Rose in a 2013 interview. “You have to look the head of state of that country eyeball to eyeball and say, ‘I’m going to make this commitment and I’m counting on you to meet your commitments.’”
The risk is that world leaders may seek to use their past relationships to seek favorable treatment from the U.S. government even if he recuses himself — or the public will perceive events that way.
“Whatever Tillerson’s ethics are about conflicts of interest, the Russians and other regimes will surely treat Exxon more favorably than other companies, thinking that giving gifts to Exxon will somehow get them a favorable response from the U.S. government,” William Browder, the founder of Hermitage Capital Management Ltd. and a Putin critic, said in an e-mail. “Conversely, to the extent that that they’re expropriating oil, Exxon will be the last one touched for the same reason.”
Bloomberg News by Nick Wadhams