WASHINGTON ― Former Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson testified under oath during his secretary of state confirmation hearing Wednesday that he had no knowledge of his company lobbying lawmakers against sanctions.
But public records show that between 2006 and 2014, while Tillerson was leading the oil giant, firms representing Exxon Mobil repeatedly lobbied members of Congress on sanctions legislation targeting Iran and Russia that could hurt the company’s business.
Confronted by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) an architect of several Congressional sanctions bills targeting Iran, Tillerson denied that the lobbying took place.
“I never lobbied against sanctions,” said Tillerson. “To my knowledge, Exxon Mobil never directly lobbied against sanctions.”
Between January and June of 2010, as lawmakers debated imposing sanctions against foreign banks that did business with Iran, two firms representing Exxon Mobil filed paperwork disclosing lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. The firms were focused on HR 2194, a sanctions bill that became law on July 1, 2010.
Sanctions proponents credit that legislation with contributing to strain on Tehran’s economy and helping force the country to negotiate significant concessions to its nuclear program.
In 2014, Exxon Mobil again dispatched a lobbyist to Capitol Hill, this time to discuss with lawmakers proposed measures towards Russia in retaliation for the country’s military incursion into Ukraine.
“I think you called me at the time!” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said during Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.
Politico reported in December that Exxon Mobil lobbying efforts successfully killed a bill that would have made Obama administration executive orders imposing punishments on Russia into law, making it harder for the next administration to undo the sanctions.
Despite submitting lobbying disclosure paperwork, Exxon Mobil disputes that its activity on Capitol Hill has ever qualified as “lobbying” against sanctions. In a statement to The Huffington Post, the oil company said it “provided information about impact of sanctions, but did not lobby against sanctions.”
Exxon tweeted a similar statement Wednesday afternoon.
Not all committee members were convinced. “In your mind, calling a United States senator to express your belief that sanctions are not effective is not lobbying,” Murphy said. “In my view, that is a distinction without a difference.”
Hours into the hearing, Menendez confronted Tillerson with physical copies of Exxon Mobil’s lobbying disclosure paperwork in an effort to get the former oil executive to concede that the group fought against sanctions.
“You don’t need a lobbying disclosure form to simply seek information and clarification about a bill,” Menendez said. “That’s not lobbying. Lobbying specifically is to promote a view of a position.”
Tillerson didn’t budge. “I haven’t seen the form that you’re holding in your hand,” he said. “I don’t know whether it indicates we were lobbying for the sanctions or we were lobbying against the sanctions.”
It is true that lobbying disclosure paperwork doesn’t typically state a company’s position on legislation. But it is reasonable to infer that an international oil company was not in favor of sanctions against an oil-rich country.
“I know you weren’t lobbying for the sanctions,” Menendez said. “It says ... ‘specific lobbying issues: Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014, provisions related to energy.’ You weren’t lobbying for sanctions on energy, were you?”
Still, Tillerson didn’t back down. “I think that’s a description of the subject that was discussed,” he said. “And I haven’t seen the form, senator, so I don’t want to be presumptuous here.”
While heading Exxon Mobil, Tillerson was upfront about his skepticism of economic sanctions against foreign adversaries. “We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensibly, and that’s a very hard thing to do,” he said at the company’s 2014 annual meeting.
On Wednesday, Tillerson would not commit to supporting sanctions against Russia in response to the Kremlin’s alleged role in election-related hacking. “Giving the executive the tool is one thing; requiring the executive to use it, without any other considerations, I would have concerns about,” he said.
Samuel Levine, Kate Sheppard and Christina Wilkie contributed reporting.