A former staffer for a Republican chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is calling for the agency's chief of staff to resign over reports that he tried to meet with right-wing British politician Nigel Farage and praised populist Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
FERC Chief of Staff Anthony Pugliese attempted to meet with Farage during a trip to London, according to emails reported by E&E News. He also praised Salvini, known for his hardline anti-immigration stances, saying that he "seems like a boss."
Alison Silverstein, a former staffer to FERC Chairman Pat Wood III, said that Pugliese should step down over the reports and previous political statements, saying that it would "spare the Chairman from having to weigh the risks of Pugliese further compromising the agency's integrity and reputation."
Pugliese's emails are not the first time he has come under criticism in recent months, and their release adds to concerns among former regulators and staffers that FERC may be falling under the political influence of the Trump administration.
While on a trip to London in July for a meeting of the Electric Infrastructure Security Council, Pugliese emailed with Raheem Kassam, a former staffer for Farage and editor at Breitbart London, a right-wing media outlet.
The chief of staff asked Kassam if there were any people "worth meeting" in London and inquired specifically about Farage.
"Any luck with Nigel?" he asked.
Kassam responded that Farage was "slammed at the moment with the most recent Brexit headlines" but suggested that they try to meet in Washington the following month.
Pugliese followed up on the thread weeks later, saying only that "Salvini seems like a boss." The message, sent Jul. 14, came days after the deputy prime minister prevented a boat of migrants from docking at an Italian port, prompting a rare intervention from the Italian president.
E&E News obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request. Pugliese told the outlet the meeting with Farage never happened and that he does not endorse Salvini's policies.
The email release is the latest in a string of Pugliese actions that are atypical for an employee at FERC, which is an independent agency whose regulators and staff usually avoid overtly political statements.
In July, Pugliese appeared on an episode of Breitbart News Sunday, a podcast run by the far-right media outlet. Then, in August, the chief of staff told a nuclear energy conference that FERC is helping identify coal and nuclear plants essential to the grid — the first step in a bailout plan leaked from the Trump administration this spring.
The conference comments were widely interpreted in the industry as an announcement that FERC was working with the White House on a bailout package, but FERC Commissioner Glick said regulators outside the office of Chairman Kevin McIntyre, to whom Pugliese reports, were not aware of his comments or any cooperation.
Former FERC regulators and staffers criticized those comments, with ex-Republican Commissioner Nora Mead Brownell saying that "political and partisan comments by any employee diminish the appearance of independence and the credibility that bestows."
At the time, Silverstein implied that Pugliese should consider stepping down over the comments, saying she would have "rushed" to resign in a similar situation.
McIntyre has since defended his chief of staff, named to the role by former acting FERC Chair Neil Chatterjee last year, but Silverstein strengthened her statement after the Tuesday email release, calling for Pugliese's resignation outright.
"I respect Chairman McIntyre for being a good soldier and defending the reputation of the assistant the White House assigned to him, but at this point it is more important to protect the integrity of the Chairman and the agency than to protect Pugliese," she wrote in an email.
"If Mr. Pugliese offers his resignation, he will spare the Chairman from having to weigh the risks of Pugliese further compromising the agency's integrity and reputation, damaging the Chairman's own reputation for integrity, and wondering whether the White House will care about the loss of its apparatchik at FERC," she added.
Silverstein was tapped last year by the Department of Energy to organize research and write the technical portions of it high-profile grid reliability study, and has served as an independent energy consultant since her time at FERC. She said Pugliese's comments may also have an effect on career staff at the agency.
"All of the FERC chairs whom I know or know of … scrupulously avoided active partisan engagement and gratuitous public statements on partisan issues," she wrote. "In contrast, Mr. Pugliese's reported activities appear hyper-partisan and wholly inconsistent with the responsibilities of an objective, non-partisan, quasi-judicial agency and its representatives. This may cause FERC career staff to wonder whether Mr. Pugliese's internal statements accurately reflect the Chairman's goals, initiatives and detailed instructions."