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Nuclear Waste Facility's Hiring of Legislative Aide Draws Ethics Concerns

Betsy Madru, state Sen. Kel Seliger's former legislative director, now works for Waste Control Specialists, which runs a low-level radioactive waste site in Seliger's district. She says she understands why some would have questions about her move, but she added there was nothing improper.

Modular concrete canisters containing nuclear waste are shown at the bottom of a storage pit near Andrews, Texas.

Betsy Madru, the new vice president of government affairs at Waste Control Specialists, should have no trouble connecting with key lawmakers about policy that affects the billion-dollar company. She could either phone her old boss or simply look across the dinner table.

Madru, who began May 1 in a position that involves outreach to state officials, previously served as legislative director for state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. Seliger's district includes Andrews County, home to the company’s vast storage and disposal site for hazardous and low-level nuclear waste, and Seliger has sponsored legislation that has allowed the company to expand the scope of waste it accepts. Madru worked on that policy. And Madru's husband, Dan, a senior policy adviser for Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, has worked on a range of energy and natural resources issues, including radioactive waste disposal.  

Straus this year instructed lawmakers to study the economic potential of storing highly radioactive nuclear waste in Texas that is stronger than WCS holds. If that long-shot idea became reality, it could yield billions more for WCS and the state.

Asked about Dan Madru's involvement with environmental policy, a spokesman for Straus' office released a statement late Monday saying that Madru's role had changed.

"Speaker Straus and his entire staff take even the appearance of conflicts of interest very seriously, which is why Mr. Madru is no longer working on issues related to the environment," Jason Embry, the spokesman said. "The Speaker and Mr. Madru are currently weighing other possible measures to ensure that no potential for conflicts, actual or perceived, exists." 

Betsy Madru said there was nothing improper about her move. Critics, however, say it looks like a two-pronged conflict of interest. Though such jumps from state government to the private sector are legal and common, Madru’s additional connection to Straus made her case more problematic, said Fred Lewis, an ethics watchdog who is active in Democratic politics. Lewis spoke to The Texas Tribune before Straus' office announced it had changed Dan Madru's role. He had called Madru’s connections a “pretty obvious” conflict that “just makes people more cynical” about government.

“The spousal connection is worse,” he said, because the Madrus would have simultaneous interests in the company and lawmakers who set its rules that affect the company. 

Betsy Madru, who began working in Seliger’s office in 2010 after spending five years at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said, “It’s always fair to raise questions, but do I think that there is an issue with impropriety? No, I don’t.” 

“We have to be aware of it, and it would be irresponsible not to be aware, so we have to take that very seriously,” she said, adding that she and her husband would "uphold the utmost professionalism.” 

WCS, formerly owned by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, is one of few sites in the nation that is licensed to store low-level radioactive waste. It has been storing contaminated items from shuttered reactors and hospitals at its site in rural West Texas since 2012.

The company, along with state and federal regulators, has repeatedly called the site safe. But environmental groups have scrutinized the facility as it has expanded the scale of waste it accepts, raising concerns about the effects on groundwater and other natural resources. 

The company’s critics also raised questions about whether the millions of dollars Simmons donated over the years to Republican state lawmakers, including Gov. Rick Perry, influenced state decisions on waste policy, but Simmons had said he believed that Perry had Texans' best interests in mind.

Chuck McDonald, a WCS spokesman, said the company needed to add Madru's position as its business rapidly expands. He said he understands any ethical concerns about the hiring. “But from our point of view,” he said, “if we’re looking to add a public affairs position at our company, we want someone who has experience in government and, more important, experience in our issue.” 

McDonald said that anyone who has been involved with Texas waste policy over the years — including the company’s critics — should be pleased that WCS has added a familiar face and someone who had developed an expertise on such complex issues. 

Seliger said he understands why ethics concerns would exist, but said he does not see any ethical issues with the move.

“She understands what the Legislature’s take in many instances are on waste issues, and that’s sometimes in conflict with what WCS would like to do," he said. "She’s going to be a pretty good arbiter of those issues.”

During Madru’s stint in Seliger’s office, the lawmaker sponsored successful legislation that enabled WCS to begin accepting low-level radioactive waste from many states and a bill that allowed states to send more concentrated, or “hotter,” waste.

In October 2013, Seliger and Madru were among several lawmakers and staffers whom WCS flew to Andrews for a “fact-finding trip,” according to a lobby activities report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. Madru said the trip, which included a tour of the facility in which she learned how the disposal site functions, occurred far before she contemplated working with the company.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, which opposes storing radioactive waste in Texas, said he found nothing comforting in the hire. “Frankly, I’m horrified for all those reasons — that she’s smart, persuasive and she knows where all the flaws in the regulations are.” 

Disclosure: The Harold Simmons Foundation is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Energy Environment Politics Joe Straus Kel Seliger