Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson faced several questions on Wednesday about his tenure as chief executive of ExxonMobil — and several times, Tillerson said that he couldn’t recall certain details of his four decades of work.
Moreover, while Tillerson repeatedly described sanctions as a powerful tool when compliance is broad, Democrats tried to show that ExxonMobil had done business with sanctioned state sponsors of terrorism including Iran, Syria and Sudan. On Thursday, the company asserted that its transactions with those countries were modest in size and did not violate sanctions law.
Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) quizzed Tillerson about Infineum, a European joint venture of ExxonMobil and the Royal Dutch Shell oil company that conducted business with Iran, which the State Department had listed as a state sponsor of terrorism as well as a state pursuing weapons of mass destruction. In particular, the senators wanted to know why the firm sold chemicals and fuel additives to the Iranian National Oil Company, listed by the Treasury Department as an affiliate of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the United States has labeled a direct sponsor of terrorist groups.
“I do not recall the details of the circumstances around what you just described. The question would have to go to ExxonMobil for them to be able to answer that,” Tillerson told Menendez.
“I don’t recall the incident,” Tillerson told Merkley. “I’ve read about it, but I don’t recall it specifically.”
On Thursday, Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said that Infineum was “independently managed” and that Exxon didn’t “have any control over them.” He added that Exxon had not violated U.S. law.
Documents obtained by The Washington Post show that the Securities and Exchange Commission contacted ExxonMobil in 2006 and 2010 about Exxon’s dealings with Iran, Syria and Sudan, including Infineum and its work with Iran. On Jan. 6, 2006, the SEC wrote to Tillerson noting press reports about company sales and the lack of any mention of them in the company’s Form 10-K, an annual report to the agency.
While these transactions were small compared to the oil giant’s overall business, they are the type of sales that would be evaluated by a major corporation’s compliance officers. And any leaks in a sanctions regime can undercut U.S. policy even if they are not large for an individual company the size of Exxon, sanctions experts note. At the same time, the U.S. government can make exceptions for the sale of certain good even to countries that have been sanctioned.
While the SEC ordinarily requires disclosure of transactions that are “material,” or large enough to affect the company overall, the SEC letter noted that material disclosures “should include consideration of qualitative factors that a reasonable investor would deem important in making an investment decision, including the potential impact of corporate activities upon a company`s reputation and share value.”
On Feb. 7, 2006, Exxon’s assistant general counsel Richard E. Gutman wrote back saying the transactions were too tiny for a company with $371 billion in revenue to matter to investors. He noted that Exxon did not have oil fields, refineries, offices or employees in the three countries.
Nonetheless, the Gutman letter described to the SEC a variety of transactions. An ExxonMobil subsidiary sold $24.3 million in chemicals to Syria in 2005. Infineum, the 50-50 joint venture between Exxon and Shell, sold $16.1 million of products to Iran in 2005, and more in the two previous years. Another Exxon subsidiary had purchased Syrian crude oil on the open market from third parties outside Syria.
In 2010, the SEC again asked ExxonMobil about transactions with those countries as well as Cuba. And on Jan. 14, 2011, ExxonMobil’s coordinator for corporate securities and finance, James E. Parson, replied, “When viewed in the context of our global business, we are confident these contacts are neither objectively nor subjectively material; do not pose a material risk for our shareholders; and do not rise to a level that warrants specific discussion in our Form 10-K or other reports. All such contacts are permitted under U.S. law.”
ExxonMobil spokesman Jeffers said on Thursday that the company had complied with all disclosures. He said that the SEC was “not in any way questioning the legality of these transactions and they were in compliance with all laws.” He noted that there were no additional inquiries from the SEC or other government agencies.
On Wednesday, Menendez charged that establishing Infineum “would clearly seem as a move designed to do business with Iran to evade sanctions on Iran.”
And Merkley noted that Tillerson had been directly contacted by the SEC: “Do you have any memory of that or discussions of whether Exxon should have disclosed those transactions?
“Senator, I think the question would be best placed to ExxonMobil, where — where the information would reside,” he said.
“No sir, you were — you were there,” Merkley said. “I’m asking if you had discussions about this or have a — have a memory of it.”
“I do not,” Tillerson said.
Given his answers, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Thursday that Tillerson “sounded like he was following the dodge-ball rules for confirmation hearings.” During a Senate floor speech, he said that senators deserve more information from Tillerson about what exactly he knew about Infineum’s dealings with Iran, Cuba and Syria.
But beyond speeches and demands for more information, there’s very little Democrats can do to stop Tillerson’s confirmation, given that Senate rules now only require a majority of senators to vote in favor of a pick. Republicans control 52 seats — just enough to make it happen.
Some Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), remain concerned about Tillerson’s nomination based on what he said about Russia and other autocratic leaders, but have not yet said they would vote against him.
Democrats in the coming days will seize on the Infineum case in hopes of at least discrediting Tillerson and seven other Trump picks that Democrats consider targets of concern. The eight nominees are either considered by critics to be unqualified for the jobs, embody Trump’s penchant for secrecy or would seek to undo Obama-era reforms. The group also includes Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and Scott Pruitt, his pick for the Environmental Protection Agency.