And as an oil titan, Tillerson threw all his considerable weight against the Cardin-Lugar anti-corruption amendment that would have required Exxon and other U.S.-listed oil and mining companies to disclose publicly their payments to governments.  He personally lobbied Congress. One key reason he cited: such open dealings would make it harder for him to do business with Russia.

Tillerson and his colleagues at the American Petroleum Institute, Big Oil’s powerful lobby, at first didn’t succeed in blocking enactment of Cardin-Lugar back in 2010.  But they fought it hard in court, and tried to water it down at the SEC.  Finally, just two days after Tillerson was sworn in as Secretary of State last year, API succeeded in winning a close Senate vote to repeal the implementing regulation.

That record of determined opposition to a law that has become a key pillar in the global fight against corruption in mineral-rich developing countries is one reason why a group of anti-corruption watchdogs this week demanded that Tillerson recuse himself from any role in writing a new regulation to replace the one struck down by Congress.  Tillerson has a clear conflict of interest based on his 40-year employment with Exxon and his continuing financial ties to the company, the NGOs said in a letter to State’s Office of the Legal Advisor. A copy of the letter is available here:

Tillerson’s recusal would be significant because the State Department played a key role in the drafting of the original SEC rule. Twice the department told the regulators “the best approach is fully-public, disaggregated disclosures, contrary to the position of Exxon and API,” the letter said.  “There is substantial reason to believe that Secretary Tillerson would seek to change the State Department’s long-held position on this issue to align with the position of Exxon and API if he is involved in the deliberations on this matter.” The letter signers were representatives from Oxfam America, EarthRights International, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Publish What You Pay--U.S.

Although the U.S. regulation never took effect, the Cardin-Lugar amendment, enacted as Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, has already had major global impact. Following the U.S. lead, both the European Union and Canada enacted their own public reporting requirements for extractive industries, which have been in effect for several years. As a result, international supermajors based in Europe and Canada, like BP, Shell, and France’s Total, as well as state-owned firms from Russia and China, have been reporting their payments to governments around the world. 

Because Cardin-Lugar has now been adopted as a global standard, the State Department should--if it is not malignly influenced--be even more supportive of a robust implementing regulation that aligns closely with the E.U. and Canadian reporting requirements.

This widespread adoption of mandatory reporting standards refutes Big Oil’s key objection to Cardin-Lugar, namely, that foreign competitors wouldn’t have to report the same information. Indeed, thanks to Tillerson and API, Russian and Chinese firms are now more transparent and accountable than American ones. Not only do they report their royalties, bonuses, and other production-related payments to countries where they operate, they also report their taxes. This is something that Exxon, Chevron, and most of the API members refused to do last year, as they had agreed to under the voluntary U.S. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

 As required by law, the SEC has been working on a new version of the Cardin-Lugar regulation. A proposed rule is expected soon, which will start the clock on a public comment period.  The SEC may well ask State again to comment on the new proposal, the letter says. If so, Tillerson should step aside from any involvement, consistent with his pledge before taking office that he would recuse himself from any cases where “a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would question my impartiality in the matter,” according to the letter.

In a similar case last year, Tillerson recused himself from deliberations over the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, which he had publicly supported while at Exxon.

The Trump administration has already abdicated America’s leadership position in the fight against global corruption by repealing the Cardin-Lugar regulation and scuttling the USEITI process. After a year in office, it’s still unclear whether Tillerson remains an oil man or has become a statesman. In the “60 Minutes” interview, Tillerson was asked, “How different was it walking into the Kremlin as Secretary of State?” Tillerson said he told Putin, “Mr. President, same man, different hat.”

So the question is, will a simple change in wardrobe really change the long-held views of a 40-year oil industry veteran?