Trump conservation pick triggers question of 'favoritism or connections'

The White House’s nominee to head a top US conservation agency lacks her predecessors’ experience while her political connections raise potential conflicts of interest, a Guardian analysis has found.

Aurelia Skipwith, who started her career at the agrochemical giant Monsanto, has been nominated to lead the interior department’s Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees endangered species and wildlife refuges.

Most former directors spent many years working at the agency or in similar state agencies before ascending to the top post. But Skipwith’s record shows no background in conservation before she joined the Trump administration less than two years ago as deputy assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks.

Skipwith holds degrees in biology, molecular genetics and law and has worked in crop science and corporate affairs. In law school, she worked with two consulting firms which were founded or co-founded by her fiance, a politically well-connected Montanan who runs in the same circles as the outgoing interior secretary, Ryan Zinke.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “She’s clearly smart. That’s not the question.”

But he said Congress sets a high bar for the position, requiring certain qualifications because “it’s such a science-heavy, complicated agency to run”. US law says a director must be, “by reason of scientific education and experience, knowledgeable in the principles of fisheries and wildlife management”.

The nomination is the latest example of how Zinke installed people with industry or political ties throughout the agency, ushering in an expansion of resource extraction at the expense of conservation, according to documents obtained by the Guardian. Hires have come from the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, who will run the agency at least until a replacement is confirmed, is a former fossil fuel lobbyist.

Skipwith joined Monsanto, which has come under criticism for its cancer-causing weedkiller, in 2006 after earning her master’s, according to her résumé. She was a lab technician and then molecular analyst.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has already made one decision favorable to Monsanto. The service rescinded a ban on farms within national wildlife refuges using bee-killing pesticides and the genetically modified crops that can withstand them.

Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate for Public Citizen, said senators should question Skipwith about her background and her interactions with lobbyists and corporations.

“She has a potentially fundamental conflict of interest. It’s hard to imagine exactly why she’s getting this job except because of favoritism or connections,” Narang said.

An interior department spokesperson said that Skipwith “is a scientist and legal professional with a diverse portfolio of experience in conservation, agriculture and international development”.

Most previous directors have been educated in wildlife management or wildlife ecology. Some specialized in forestry or fisheries management.

John Turner of Wyoming, nominated by George HW Bush, had been a river guide, rancher and wildlife biologist before taking the position. Barack Obama’s director from 2011 to 2017, Dan Ashe, had been the deputy director of policy and science adviser at the service for nine years before his nomination. For five years before that he was chief of the national wildlife refuge system.

Ashe, now CEO of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, praised Skipwith’s nomination. “In a field where diversity is sorely needed, it is encouraging to see a woman and person of color nominated to this important and prominent leadership position,” he said.

“I offer Ms Skipwith my congratulations on this great honor, and the very best as her education, experience and knowledge are considered by the US Senate,” he said.

While Skipwith doesn’t have the typical experience of a director, she does have ties to Montana, the home of interior secretary Ryan Zinke, who is resigning amid investigations into whether he used his office for personal gain.

Outside of her six years at Monsanto, Skipwith lists experience at two firms where she worked with her fiance, Leo Giacometto. He is a former US marshal who was in the Montana legislature, was state agriculture director and was chief of staff to the US senator Conrad Burns.

Giacometto, a longtime lobbyist, is known to some Montana sources as a political power broker, someone who could elevate or sink a campaign for public office.

Other than her work at Monsanto and with lobbyists, Skipwith claimed only brief government experience while in law school. She was a consultant at the US Agency for International Development for five months and a summer intern at the agriculture department.

The department declined to respond specifically to a list of more than two dozen questions about Skipwith’s resume, including discrepancies about when she worked for some employers.

Skipworth and Giacometto did not respond to requests for clarifications or comment.

Another employer while she was in law school, the agriculture business Alltech, said she worked for the company during the time she was a consultant at USAid, although that is not how she described her work history on her résumé. She said she started at Alltech later.

Because Skipwith has not yet been confirmed by the US Senate, the White House would need to renominate her next year when new lawmakers arrive in Washington in order for her to take the job. The White House did not respond to questions about whether she would be renominated.

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