Brenda Shaffer's Conflicts of Interest

On Thursday morning, the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University hosted a discussion on the status of the Southern Gas Corridor. Dr. Vitaliy Baylarbayov, the deputy vice president from SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state-run hydrocarbon company, led the discussion, and Jesse McCormick, associate director for the Center on Global Energy Policy, moderated. The panel was rounded out by Brenda Shaffer, whose position remained unclear. Mr. McCormick introduced her as a “panelist,” but she corrected him that she was a “moderator.” She was not listed as moderator – she was not listed at all – in the Center on Global Energy Policy’s release on its website.

I’ll refrain from analysis of her presence at the moment, other than to point to this article on Prof. Shaffer’s recent history of non-disclosure of her time as an “advisor to the president of SOCAR for strategic affairs.” No disclosure was made of her affiliation with SOCAR at today's discussion until I brought it up. I have, instead, transcribed my questions and her response, as well as Mr. McCormick’s attempts to interject. The response from Dr. Baylarbayov was not included, since it was not pertinent, and the ah’s and uh’s of the back-and-forth have been cleaned up.  [Updated below with audio.]

Me: Thank you. My name is Casey Michel, I’m a second-year student at the Harriman Institute. Thank you so much for this presentation today – this was absolutely fantastic. I have a few brief questions. Firstly, the slides, as it pertained to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, looks as if the implementation is still moving forward. [To Dr. Baylarbayov] I was wondering if you might be able to address the role that Tony Blair, who was recently hired as an adviser for the consortium, will play in that.

And then Prof. Shaffer, I was hoping to address a question to you. Your name has been in the news a little bit recently. You were a strategic adviser, an “adviser for strategic affairs” for the president of SOCAR; you had an op-ed in the New York Times that had to issue a correction clarifying that. I was wondering if you might address that, and then whether or not Congress was aware of that relationship when you testified.

[Response from Dr. Baylarbayov on Mr. Blair’s role.]

Shaffer: Casey – so, yeah, thank you for your question. No, I’m kind of in a personal dilemma here, I’ll tell you the truth that on one hand, having worked on energy as a researcher and every side of the table for governments, for companies, I’m very proud of my role, and I don’t think that just like, for instance, a professor of law probably couldn’t teach law well if he’s never been to the court, or a professor of MBA – if he hadn’t been involved in or engaged in business probably couldn’t teach, you know, how does a negotiation work, how do you do a contract. I think my students benefit from the fact that I have been on every side of the table.

On the other hand I think that, you know, part of the American way is a right to privacy. Like, if I asked you, Casey, OK, what’s your wife’s name, what school do you go to, who funds your scholarship right now, where do you work, how do you pay your meals, how do – what’s your cholesterol count – there’s nothing to be ashamed of in any of those answers. But the idea that you come in and try to you know, well, pick apart everything in my background, or whatever, why don’t you, instead of shooting the messenger, why don’t you look at my message.

Exactly – this article that was of so much of interest to many of you and your colleagues. I wrote about Russia’s intervention in the South Caucasus and how they played a role in the loss of lives between both Armenians and Azerbaijanis and the danger that this is for the region and for US policy. What do you find wrong about this view? Where do you see the bias of Big Bad Oil in my views? Tell me: What about this article actually really upset you so much?

Me: Oh, nothing about the article upset me – I was just asking if you had any comment about the correction that came after, specifying the relationship you had with SOCAR.

Shaffer: Again, like I said, I’m not going to ask you your cholesterol count. Who pays your scholarship, Casey? How do you pay your tuition here?

McCormick: I don’t think we need to –

Shaffer: No but I, that, I mean, but that – who pays your tuition here?

McCormick: We’re just trying to – I think the main purpose of this event is to focus on the presentation.

Mr. McCormick redirected the conversation thereafter, and took further questions.

Neither of my questions were answered.

Update: Here's the four-minute audio of the question and response(s), which helps provide a bit of context to the words. Please let me know if there are any typos in the transcript; apologies about the poor quality of the audio.